You always hear about the ‘nuclear football.’ Here’s the behind-the-scenes story

Jul 18, 2023, 7:08 AM

A military aide carries the Presidential Emergency Satchel, also known as the "nuclear football," o...

A military aide carries the Presidential Emergency Satchel, also known as the "nuclear football," out of 10 Downing Street in London on Monday, July 10, 2023, after a meeting between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and U.S. President Joe Biden. The bulky briefcase contains atomic war plans and enables the president to transmit nuclear orders to the Pentagon. The heavy case is carried by a military officer who is never far behind the president. (AP Photo/David Cliff)

(AP Photo/David Cliff)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The most important — and mysterious — “football” in the world isn’t really a football at all.

Officially called the “ Presidential Emergency Satchel, ” the “nuclear football” is a bulky briefcase that contains atomic war plans and enables the president to transmit nuclear orders to the Pentagon. The heavy case is carried by a military officer who is never far behind the president, whether the commander-in-chief is boarding a helicopter or exiting meetings with world leaders.

Beyond those basic facts, however, not much is known about the satchel, which has come to symbolize the massive power of the presidency. Let’s change that.

William Burr, a senior analyst at the nonprofit National Security Archive at George Washington University, published a report Tuesday detailing his recent research into the presidential pigskin. Among the tidbits Burr unearthed: The football once contained presidential decrees that some in the U.S. government came to believe were likely illegal and unnecessary (there would be nobody left alive to implement them in the event of a nuclear holocaust).

Burr, who has spent three decades researching and writing about nuclear war planning and history, sat down with The Associated Press recently to talk about his research and the nuclear football’s history. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity:


In the beginning, there was the president’s “emergency satchel” or “the black bag.” During the late 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his advisers worried about the United States’ vulnerability to a nuclear surprise attack. So the president could make quick decisions on the spot, a military aide started carrying a satchel of documents that would help the president communicate with the Pentagon or other military headquarters.

The satchel also included presidential proclamations — Presidential Emergency Action Documents, or PEADS — declaring a national emergency and expanding executive power to deal with the crisis. Initially the satchel and military aide followed the President only during travel outside of Washington, D.C. Eisenhower passed the satchel on to his successor, John F. Kennedy, and sometime in the early 1960s it also became known as the football, perhaps because of the Kennedy family’s liking for touch football.


The explanation is the secrecy and the problem of nuclear risk and danger. The idea of a military aide following the president, carrying a locked bag with secret nuclear information, is a routine for the modern U.S presidency that has intrigued journalists and historians and the public. The idea that the president needs to be able to make speedy decisions in a perilous moment conveyed the ultimate danger of nuclear weapons. That the football system has lasted since the late 1950s adds to the mystery.


My research at the National Security Archive has partly focused on command-and-control arrangements for nuclear weapons. On command and control, some good information has been declassified over the years. But there are so many aspects to the nuclear problem that I did not look into the history of the football as early as I should have. Unfortunately, but not too surprising, only a smattering of information has been declassified. Even the few relevant documents from the 1960s are heavily excised.


The football included emergency proclamations that, as the Carter administration found out, had not been updated for years. And there was concern about the legality of some of them. Also, White House officials recognized that the comprehensive devastation of nuclear war could make the proclamations irrelevant. By the early 1980s, the presidential directives had been revised, but how they were changed has not been disclosed. Whether there were still worries about their legality is also an open question.


Apparently when Richard Nixon was vice president he was assigned a black bag. The next vice president, Lyndon Johnson, declined a black bag. When Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, top military commanders worried that the new president did not know what was in the football so they made sure that a White House military aide gave him a briefing after he arrived in Washington.

If any of the vice presidents from Hubert Humphrey to Nelson Rockefeller had a military aide carrying a football it has not been disclosed, so far as I know. But President Jimmy Carter was aware of the vulnerability problem and made sure that his vice president, Walter Mondale, had a military aide carrying the football.


You’ve put your finger right on the problem — everywhere and nowhere. For example, we can see the military aide carrying the bag behind Vice President Mike Pence during the Jan. 6, 2021, riots at the U.S. Capitol. But its contents remain as inscrutable as they were 50 years ago. The Archives’ new posting includes photos of the military aide carrying the football, sometimes with the president in different situations. From some of the photos, you can see what looks like a little antenna projecting from the bag, suggesting that it includes communication devices. As far as the contents go, some details have been leaked and some general information has been declassified — but very little in the way of specifics.


The Associated Press receives support for nuclear security coverage from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Outrider Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Del Wilber is the Washington investigations editor for the AP. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/delwilber

United States News

Associated Press

A woman who fled the Maui wildfire on foot has died after weeks in a hospital burn unit

HONOLULU (AP) — A woman who escaped a wildfire that destroyed Hawaii community by running through a burning field has died after spending more than seven weeks in a hospital burn unit. Laurie Allen died Friday at Straub Medical Center in Honolulu, according to a gofundme page set up for her and her husband, Perry […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Inmate accused of killing corrections officer at Georgia prison

GLENNVILLE, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia prison guard died Sunday after he was attacked by an inmate, state officials said. Correctional officer Robert Clark, 42, died at a hospital after an inmate assaulted him with a homemade weapon at Smith State Prison in rural Glennville, the Georgia Department of Corrections said in a news release. […]

3 hours ago

FILE - The U.S. Supreme Court is seen, Wednesday, Aug 30, 2023, in Washington. The new term of the ...

Associated Press

The Supreme Court may tackle guns, abortion in new session starting Monday

Major cases await, as they always do, including several challenges to regulatory agencies and efforts to regulate social media platforms.

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Video shows bloodied Black man surrounded by officers during Florida traffic stop

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A traffic stop captured on video by a bystander shows a handcuffed Black man with swollen eyes and a bloody face sitting on the ground surrounded by officers outside a vehicle in northeast Florida, and the officers’ law enforcement agency says it has launched an internal review. Force was used while […]

4 hours ago

Associated Press

Airbnb guest who rented a room tied up, robbed Georgia homeowner at gunpoint, police say

BUFORD, Ga. (AP) — Police say a man who used Airbnb to rent a room in Georgia ended up robbing the home’s owner at gunpoint. A homeowner in the metro Atlanta suburb of Buford called Gwinnett County police saying an armed man who had rented his basement through the room-sharing app had fled after stealing […]

4 hours ago

Associated Press

More than 100 search for 9-year-old girl who was camping with family in upstate New York

MOREAU, N.Y. (AP) — Drones, bloodhounds and an airboat were used in the search for a missing 9-year-old girl who had been camping with her family in upstate New York, officials said Sunday. Charlotte Sena was last seen bicycling on Saturday evening in Moreau Lake State Park, about 35 miles (60 kilometers) north of Albany, […]

5 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Home moving relocation in Arizona 2023...

BMS Moving

Tips for making your move in Arizona easier

If you're moving to a new home in Arizona, use this to-do list to alleviate some stress and ensure a smoother transition to your new home.



When most diets fail, re:vitalize makes a difference that shows

Staying healthy and losing weight are things many people in Arizona are conscious of, especially during the summer.


OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

5 mental health myths you didn’t know were made up

Helping individuals understand mental health diagnoses like obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder or generalized anxiety disorder isn’t always an easy undertaking. After all, our society tends to spread misconceptions about mental health like wildfire. This is why being mindful about how we talk about mental health is so important. We can either perpetuate misinformation about already […]

You always hear about the ‘nuclear football.’ Here’s the behind-the-scenes story