- Every American president since Eisenhower has been followed by a bag known as the “nuclear football.”
- The briefcase was born from the Cold War belief the president needs to be able to order a launch in minutes.
- Much of the briefcase’s contents are highly classified, but over its decades-long history, a lot has been learned.
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Wherever a US president goes, a military aide carrying a heavy black briefcase follows. The case is always close by, just in case the president needs to unleash the devastating and destructive power of the US nuclear arsenal while out of the White House.
Every US president since Harry Truman, the only leader of a nuclear-armed state to authorize the use of nuclear force against an enemy, has had absolute authority over the use of nuclear weapons, and the “nuclear football” has been an important part of that presidential power for decades.
The briefcase is officially known as the president’s emergency satchel, but it is more commonly called the “nuclear football” or simply the “football.” The case starts following the president the moment they take the oath of office.
The “football” exists for two reasons, Stephen Schwartz, a nonresident senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and an expert on the satchel, told Insider recently.
One, the briefcase “is the physical representation of the presidential authority” to order the use of nuclear weaponry, Schwartz said. Two, it exists because “we’ve been afraid that a surprise nuclear attack could catch us off guard and preclude any sort of retaliation.”
Schwartz explained that the strategic thinking behind the “football” is that “if you have the ability for the president to act quickly, you can forestall that and therein deter that from ever happening.”
‘Atomic weapons in an emergency’
Born from Cold War fears that the Soviet Union might launch a surprise attack that could cripple the critical US nuclear capabilities were the president unable to launch an immediate retaliatory strike, the “nuclear football” has been around since the Eisenhower administration.
The “football” was invented by Capt. Edward “Ned” Beach, Jr., a submarine officer who served as a naval aide to Dwight Eisenhower during his presidency, according to a 1991 Newsweek article.
The bag has been handed off from presidency to presidency, and every incoming president since Eisenhower peacefully transferred power to John F. Kennedy has been briefed on their nuclear responsibilities and the “nuclear football” prior to or upon taking office.
The day before Kennedy’s inauguration, Army Brig. Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, a defense liaison to the president, and Eisenhower met with the president-elect and “showed Mr. Kennedy the ‘satchel’ and the book of emergency documents therein,” a memo from Jan. 25, 1961 reads.
The memo says that the general “also told him of the extra document … included in the satchel which would authorize the use of atomic weapons in an emergency.”
The first known photograph of the briefcase, which can be seen in the first black-and-white photo in the collection of “football” photos below, was taken on May 10, 1963, when Kennedy traveled to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts to meet the Canadian prime minister.
—Stephen Schwartz (@AtomicAnalyst) January 17, 2020
Army Maj. Gen. Chester Clifton was tasked with carrying the satchel that day, just months before the president’s life suddenly and violently ended in November 1963.
Nicknamed the ‘football’
It is unclear where exactly the nickname “football” came from, but one of the first known public appearances of this term was in a November 1965 article by Associated Press reporter Bob Horton on Kennedy’s death two years earlier and the transfer of the presidential nuclear command authority.
Horton wrote that as Kennedy was dying at a hospital in Dallas, Texas after being shot, Ira Gearhart, a US Army warrant officer, “sat outside in the lobby unobtrusively guarding a brown leather briefcase someone had nicknamed the ‘football.'”
When Kennedy died, the man “picked up the case and strode past the emergency room desk into a surgery suite where, behind drawn shades, sat Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson,” Horton wrote, explaining that “with those few steps came the first real, if not formal, transfer of power.”
As for why someone nicknamed the president’s emergency satchel the “football,” a 2005 AP report on the briefcase said that the nickname “football” came about in response to the first nuclear war plan, or Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), code-named “dropkick.”
Smithsonian Magazine reported the same in 2014, explaining that the concept was that a “football” was required to execute a “dropkick.” This explanation was attributed to former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
William Burr, an analyst with the National Security Archive at George Washington University, wrote in 2018 that this “may be the case, but no evidence supports this claim.” He argued that there is no evidence of a US war plan code-named “dropkick.”
Burr further explained that the only reference to “dropkick” that he has been able to find is in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. There were, however, real plans code-named “dropshot” and “offtackle,” the latter being a football term.
Regardless of where the nickname came from, it stuck, and people continue to call the briefcase the “football” today. That even includes the aides that carry the case and US presidents who might need to use it.
The aide with the briefcase is the president’s constant companion, not only at home, but also overseas as well. During the later years of the Cold War, the briefcase was photographed in Red Square in Moscow. It is one among many places the case has traveled.
—Stephen Schwartz (@AtomicAnalyst) May 31, 2017
Russian leaders are accompanied by a briefcase similar in function to the American “nuclear football.” The case, which is an important part of the command and control of Russia’s nuclear forces, is known as the “cheget” or more generally “chemodanchik.”
The Russian briefcase was created during the tense early 1980s, when the Soviets were becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of a US nuclear strike that would require immediate retaliation, according to a 1998 Washington Post report.
US and Russian leaders have talked about the possibility of eliminating the nuclear briefcases, though nothing has ever come of those discussions.
The issue was raised repeatedly during meetings between Bill Clinton and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, declassified confidential memos on the meetings show.
“Let us say we get rid of the nuclear footballs,” Yeltsin remarked during a 1994 meeting. Yeltsin said that it was “too much” to have a military aide “drag around one of these briefcases.” Clinton said he would need to think about it, telling Yeltsin he hadn’t given the matter any thought.
The Russian president brought this proposal up again in 1997, asking, “What if we were to give up having to have our finger next to the button all the time?” Yeltsin told Clinton that “it is not necessary for us to carry the chemodanchik.”
“I’ll have to think about this,” Clinton replied. “All we carry, of course, are the codes and the secure phone.”
There is a little bit more to the contents of the “football” than Clinton’s short response during that meeting suggests. Reports from military aides and others throughout its history have offered some insight into what is in the bag. The specifics are classified though.
‘Things in the Football’
Warren “Bill” Gulley, the former director of the White House Military Office that oversees the “nuclear football,” wrote in his 1980 book Breaking Cover that “there are four things in the Football.”
These things include “the Black Book containing the retaliatory options, a book listing classified site locations, a manila folder with eight or ten pages stapled together giving a description of procedures for the Emergency Broadcast System, and a three-by-five inch card with authentication codes.”
The briefcase is also suspected to contain communications tools because what appears to be an antenna is visible in some photos of the “football.”
The black book in the briefcase explains US nuclear war plans, previously called SIOPs but later renamed, and contains a collection of pre-approved preemptive or retaliatory strike options the president could choose from in an emergency.
A simplified summary of the nuclear war plans and strike options was added to the briefcase during the Carter administration at the request of the president, according to the AP.
The simplified summary has been described as somewhat cartoonish. A former military aide who carried the “football” said it is a little bit like “a Denny’s breakfast menu.”
Gulley, the AP reported, described the options as “Rare, Medium, or Well Done.” It is unclear if this remains unchanged.
The card with the authentication codes, which are not the same as the launch codes maintained by the US military, is known as the “biscuit,” and it is an important part of the process a president would go through to order a nuclear strike.
If the president decided to use nuclear weapons, the “football” would be opened, and the president would be presented with strike options. The commander in chief may choose to consult with senior advisors and military leaders before proceeding, but that is not a requirement.
Using the “biscuit,” the president would identify himself to a military official in the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon, who would then receive and transmit strike orders once it was clear that the nuclear strike orders were coming from the commander in chief.
Within just a few minutes, nuclear weapons aboard strategic bombers or carried by land-based or submarine-launched missiles would be in the air.
While it may have once been carried inside the “football,” presidents later began carrying the “biscuit” on their person. That development has led to more than one alarming mishap.
‘Nothing going wrong’
Carter accidentally left his “biscuit” in a suit that he sent to the dry cleaner, the FBI took possession of Ronald Reagan’s card after agents seized his clothes at the hospital following an attempt on his life, and Clinton is said to have lost his card. It was missing for months before anyone knew.
Like the “biscuit,” the “football” has also been fumbled quite a few times.
During Gerald Ford’s presidency, the “football” was mistakenly left on Air Force One, and Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton all found themselves separated from the aide carrying the briefcase at one point or another.
None of these incidents “tremendously imperiled presidential command and control,” Schwartz told Insider, “but they do point out the fact that when you have one person in charge of all this, it does put a premium on everything working and nothing going wrong.”
During the Trump administration, there were at least two incidents involving the “nuclear football.”
The first happened when Donald Trump visited Beijing in November 2017 and involved a scuffle between US officials and Chinese security over the briefcase.
Chinese security officials attempted to prevent the military aide carrying the satchel from following the president into the Great Hall of the People, setting off a series of events that ultimately led to a physical altercation between the Secret Service and Chinese security personnel, Axios reported at the time. Beijing apologized for the unpleasant exchange.
‘An unstable president’
Another incident involving the “football” occurred near the end of Trump’s presidency on Jan. 6, 2020, when a violent mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol, where a backup “nuclear football” was following Vice President Mike Pence.
The practice of giving a backup “nuclear football” to the vice president started under Eisenhower, who was concerned about his health after he suffered a heart attack. Over time, it became standard practice, Fred Kaplan, the author of The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, explained in a recent Slate article.
During the Capitol riots, the mob, some members of which were shouting “Hang Mike Pence!” after Trump criticized him for not pushing to overturn the election, came within 100 feet of Pence and the “football.”
Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for inciting the deadly riots at the Capitol, which raised questions about the dangers of giving a potentially unhinged president sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.
—Vipin Narang (@NarangVipin) February 11, 2021
Even as he faced impeachment for the second time in his presidency, Trump maintained control of the “nuclear football” and the authority to use nuclear weapons.
The troubling situation moved Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to call the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about options to restrict this presidential power for Trump, who she called “an unstable president.”
The scene was reminiscent of when Richard Nixon, who was depressed and drinking heavily in the face of impeachment, sparked fears among members of his own Cabinet and some members of Congress that he might order a nuclear strike and kill millions.
But, just as it did with Nixon, Trump’s presidency passed without a nuclear catastrophe. At noon on Jan. 20, 2020, the “nuclear football” began following President Joe Biden.
Though there were some questions beforehand about how the transfer would take place given Trump’s decision to not attend his successor’s inauguration, the transfer of the briefcase and presidential nuclear command and control authority occurred seamlessly that day.
Biden currently has control of the “football” and nuclear command authority, but some in Congress are pushing to change the status quo that allows him to unilaterally order nuclear attacks at a moment’s notice.
Just a few days after Biden took office, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Secretary of Defense William Perry wrote in an op-ed published by USA Today that “no president should have unilateral power to use nuclear weapons.”
Then, a little over a month into Biden’s presidency, dozens of House Democrats led by California Reps. Ted Lieu and Jimmy Panetta sent him a letter asking him to consider changing US nuclear policy, specifically the president’s sole nuclear strike authority, and creating checks and balances in the system.
The debate over the president’s authority to order the use of nuclear weapons has come and gone many times. It is unclear what decisions, if any, Biden will make on nuclear policy, but for the time being at least, wherever the president goes, the “nuclear football” will follow.