University Archives and Special Collections

at The University of Texas at Tyler

Of Spies and Communists and Little Black Boxes

Posted by BrandyWinn on July 7, 2010

Last month news agencies around the world reported the arrests of ten people accused of being Russian spies.  These reports hearken back to the old tensions between the US and Russia.  If you were born in the mid- to late-1980s into the 1990s, you probably will not remember the hostility that permeated the relations between the United States and what was previously known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  You may have heard your parents or grandparents talk of the fear of communists wanting to take over and change their way of life, the worry about the infiltration of spies from the USSR to steal information on nuclear weaponry, and the possibility that one day, at any time, the USSR could suddenly “snap” and launch their own nuclear weapons at the United States during the “Cold War.”

So now, looking through the documents kept by Tyler journalist Sarah McClendon, I find it amusing to see some of the “important” news of the time and compare it to what is currently newsworthy information, such as the previously mentioned arrest of Russian spies.  The following is an explanation of an official presidential responsibility and an article found in Sarah McClendon’s papers demonstrating the American understanding of the issues of communist intentions in 1969:

In August 1969, President Richard Nixon met with several officials within the USSR.  Many people will remember that the President of the United States had a “little black box” that would provide him the numbers, or “key,” to allow the Department of Defense to launch nuclear weapons.  If he were to open the box and give them these numbers, they would know that he wanted them to launch missiles to pre-determined sites within the USSR and around the world.  If you were like me, I thought that when the little black box was opened, all that would be in there was a button that the President would push from anywhere in the world that would launch all the nuclear weapons we had.  I was slightly naïve.

For the July 10-12, 1969 edition of the Examiner, Sarah McClendon wrote:

“As President Richard M. Nixon goes behind the Iron Curtain next month, the little black box which contains the ‘key’ to the system for setting off a nuclear holocaust in the world must go with him.

A President of the US is never out of communication with this system.  And if he had to set it off while in Romania or any other country, he would be able to do so, regardless of where, an official source revealed.

It is not known if Romania was aware of this at the time the country jubilantly agreed to be singled out for this visit, which is a break-through in East-West relations.

The fact that this is the first time a president of the US has ever gone behind the Iron Curtain does indeed call for special considerations and special preparations, a White House aide confirmed.  It increases the need for planning and protection.

But while this trip calls for special planning, he said, all traveling by the chief executive, even in this country, is dangerous and calls for special precautions.  And he added that each country the President will visit is just as anxious as the US is to see that the President is safe at all times, because no country wants the blame for any accident or unseemly incident.

With all of this, the nation gets a little nervous.  This time as the President leaves July 22 for the 13-day visit that will take him island hopping in the Pacific, then to Asia and on Aug. 2 to Romania, the average man in the street is more apprehensive than usual.  Even business is sensitive to the strain.

This time because of the itinerary chosen, the situation with the little black box becomes more crucial that [sic] ever.

It will be carried as always by a warrant officer.  If one did not know, he might think that this was the President’s attaché bag, officials say.

The officials said Nixon will have the capability of using the black box at all times, and there is no known way by which he could be prevented from using the signals if he felt it necessary.

He will always be in telephone and radio contact with the White House and other government offices here.  This is why the communications experts who will accompany the President are a sizeable part of the crew.  There will be about 30 such technicians, working in two teams.  One finishes work at one location while the other travels to the next stop on the trip.

The black box consists of a gadget that gives coded figures that are necessary for the President to use in ordering weapons to be armed with nuclear warheads.  There may be millions of combinations of the figures, so it is not believed possible that it could be operated by an enemy agent or thief.

The President is not required to use the signal only in self defense.  He may use it when and as he deems proper.  There is nothing in the official language on presidential powers which says he must use it only as a second-strike, although the nation has told the world that our policy will be to not strike another nation first.

Section 91-B of the Atomic Energy Act says the President may direct the Atomic Energy Commission to provide the Defense Department ‘with such quantities of special nuclear material or atomic weapons for such use as he deems necessary in the interest of national defense.’  This is known as ‘control of the key.’”

Further Reading:

Anderson, Terry. The Sixties. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.

Chafe, William Henry. The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2006. 10th ed. New York: Wiley, 2008.

Leuchtenburg, William. In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to George Bush. 3rd ed, revised and updated. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.


One Response to “Of Spies and Communists and Little Black Boxes”

  1. BrandyWinn said

    Here is a little more to the story. According to this article, the United States may be gearing up to make a spy exchange with Russia–ours for theirs!

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