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

National News

Associated Press

Richard Simmons, a fitness guru who mixed laughs and sweat, dies at 76

NEW YORK (AP) — Richard Simmons, television’s hyperactive court jester of physical fitness who built a mini-empire in his trademark tank tops and short shorts by urging the overweight to exercise and eat better, died Saturday. He was 76. Los Angeles police and fire departments say they responded to a Los Angeles house where a […]

19 minutes ago

FILE - Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., greets supporters at an election night party Nov. 8, 2022, at Loo...

Associated Press

Minnesota Republican Tayler Rahm drops out to clear path for Joe Teirab in competitive US House race

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Republicans got a straighter path to potential victory Saturday in what is expected to be Minnesota’s closest congressional race when GOP-endorsed candidate Tayler Rahm dropped out of a primary fight against the better-funded Joe Teirab, who already had tacit backing from key House leaders. Rahm, a political newcomer and defense attorney, said […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

New York’s first female fire commissioner says she’ll resign once a replacement is found

NEW YORK (AP) — The first female commissioner of the Fire Department of New York said Saturday that she plans to step down because it’s time to “pass the torch” after two years in the job. Laura Kavanagh didn’t say when she plans to resign, but she said in a statement that she plans to […]

1 hour ago

FILE - Then First lady Melania Trump speaks to a small group of supporters as President Donald Trum...

Associated Press

This year’s RNC speakers include VP hopefuls, GOP lawmakers and UFC’s CEO — but not Melania Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former first lady Melania Trump will attend the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee next week, making a rare political appearance. But unlike in years past, she is not expected to address the gathering where her husband, former President Donald Trump, will formally accept the Republican nomination. While in the White House, Melania […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Alec Baldwin thanks supporters in first public comments after early end to trial

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Alec Baldwin made his first public comments to thank his supporters Saturday after the stunning early end to his involuntary manslaughter trial. “There are too many people who have supported me to thank just now,” Baldwin said in a brief Instagram post that accompanied a photo of him sitting in […]

2 hours ago

FILE - Rudy Giuliani speaks during a news conference outside federal court in Washington, Dec. 15, ...

Associated Press

Rudy Giuliani’s bankruptcy case was thrown out. Here’s some key things to know

NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge threw out the bankruptcy case of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on Friday. He cited repeated “uncooperative conduct,” including a failure to comply with court orders and disclose sources of income. While Giuliani’s creditors can now pursue other legal remedies, such as seizing his apartments and other […]

4 hours ago

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