30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Presidential Control of Nuclear Weapons: The "Football"

Presidents and the Football

Published: Jul 9, 2018
Briefing Book #632

Edited by William Burr

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Declassified Documents Include Eisenhower's Briefing to President-elect Kennedy on the "Satchel" Containing Information Needed to Conduct Nuclear War

JFK requested procedures for launching nuclear attacks without consulting Pentagon

Presidential Control of Nuclear Weapons: The "Football"

Washington D.C., July 9, 2018 - Online blustering about nuclear “buttons” has brought new attention to the issue of presidential control over nuclear weapons, and to the special satchel or “Football” of emergency and nuclear planning information carried by White House military aides when the President is traveling.  Declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive describe the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson arrangements for the “Football”; and the posting includes newly discovered White House photographs of six recent Presidents with military aides and the Football nearby.


by William Burr

The on-line discussion of "nuclear buttons" during the Korean crisis has deepened concern about the problem of presidential control of nuclear weapons and whether a president can initiate a nuclear war over the doubts and opposition of top civilian and military advisers.[1] Symbolizing the reality of presidential control is the “Football,” the special briefcase that contains information on U.S. war plans and emergency procedures, carried by a military aide whenever the President is outside the White House, whether at a Washington, D.C. location or traveling on Air Force One or Marine One. Variously known as the “emergency kit,” the “President’s Black Bag,” the “satchel,” or the “suitcase,” the Football and the military aide carrying it are near the president’s side in the event of a terrible crisis, such as a nuclear attack, so that the president has the information and the communications arrangements needed to make a timely decision. Today, the National Security Archive publishes for the first time a variety of declassified documents discussing the procedures and a wide array of White House photographs, from the Kennedy administration to the Clinton administration, showing military aides carrying the Football standing by or walking near the president.

It is not clear when or why the “Black Bag” became known as the Football[2], but during the Eisenhower administration it became the practice, when the president was traveling, for a military aide to carry a briefcase including emergency action documents, such as presidential proclamations and information on authorization of nuclear weapons use. An aide was also assigned to Vice President Richard Nixon in the event that something happened to the president.

A number of important developments made Football-type arrangements important both to the president and the Pentagon leadership. The emergence of a Soviet ICBM threat in the late 1950s greatly reduced warning time and the need for rapid decisions in a crisis made it important to establish procedures for convening emergency conferences between the president, the secretary of defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Moreover, the creation of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) in the early 1960s, soon gave the president (or a successor) a menu of preemptive or retaliatory nuclear attack options. The Football came to include the “SIOP Execution Handbook,” with detailed information on the strike options.

Today’s posting includes documents published for the first time on the early history of the Football/Black Bag/satchel, including what may be the first declassified reference to the Football. Included in today’s materials are:

  • The record of a briefing in January 1961 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and White House Staff Secretary Andrew J. Goodpaster to President-elect John F. Kennedy about the contents of the emergency “satchel”
  • White House questions from January 1962 about whether the president could order a nuclear strike in an emergency without consulting the Pentagon
  • A Pentagon memorandum from November 1962 on an “Emergency Actions Folder” forwarded to a White House Naval aide concerning actions that could be taken under various Defense Readiness Conditions [DEFCONs].
  • Documents from 1963 on the making of the “SIOP Execution Handbook,” created expressly for the president’s use in a crisis and one of the major items in the Football.
  • Documents from 1964 on the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s creation of the “Gold Book,” the renamed emergency actions folder, for inclusion in the emergency satchel.
  • Memoranda from 1964 on President Johnson’s first briefing on the nuclear war plans, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), with White House military aides among the listeners.
  • A draft memorandum from early 1965 suggesting that President Johnson did not like to “be followed so closely” by a military aide carrying the Football and that he wanted other arrangements.
  • A June 1965 memorandum by a White House naval aide explicitly referring to the “FOOTBALL.”

The existence of the Football embodies the presidential control of nuclear weapons that is essential to civilian direction of the military, but it points to the risks of one person having exclusive power to make fateful decisions to use nuclear weapons. President John F. Kennedy  spoke to the problem in November 1962 by saying, “From the point of view of logic there was no reason why the President of the United States should have the decision on whether to use nuclear weapons,” but “ history had given him this power.”

The first public reference to the “Football” may have been in an article by journalist Bob Horton in The Baltimore Sun in November 1965. It was partly based on an interview with Army warrant officer and Football-carrier Ira Gearhart, who had been in the back of the President’s motorcade in Dallas on 22 November 1963 (Warrant officers have shared responsibility with military aides for the Football's security). When Gearhart learned about Kennedy’s death, he and the Football moved into the hospital suite where Vice President Johnson had been sitting. According to Horton’s account, the “satchel” included a “portfolio of cryptographic orders” to the Joint Chiefs for authorizing nuclear retaliation.  The message could be sent either by telephone, teletype, or microwave radio. Horton also learned that through arrangements established by the Defense Communications Agency, the authorizing messages could also be sent to the North American Air Defense Command or the Strategic Air Command.  Because the orders were encrypted, they would be meaningless to a thief; as former Chief of the White House Communications Office Lt. Colonel George J. McNally explained: “Visualize the thing as a dollar bill torn in half,” with half of it at the Pentagon. “Only when the President sends his half will the two pieces key together or fit.” [3]

Another public reference to the “satchel’s” existence appeared in 1965 when former president Eisenhower alluded to it in a memoir, but more information became public in 1967 when William Manchester published The Death of a President.  Manchester described the “black bag” that Ira Gearhart had carried on 22 November 1963 as a “thirty-pound metal suitcase with an intricate combination lock.”  Uncertainty about Gearhart’s whereabouts during the chaos of that day caused alarm at the Pentagon, but he was on Air Force One when Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office. Johnson was told about the Football for the first time by White House military aide General Chester Clifton. [4]

Manchester’s sources described the black bag’s contents: launch codes, contact phone numbers for the British prime minister and the president of France (with whom U.S. presidents had agreed to consult, if possible, when making nuclear weapons use decisions), and information on nuclear strike options. According to Manchester’s account, the presentation of the latter “looked like comic books… because they had been carefully designed so that any one of Kennedy’s three military aides could quickly tell him how many casualties would result from Retaliation Able, Retaliation Baker, Retaliation Charlie, etc.” This may not be wholly accurate:   the satchel may not have include launch codes, which were closely held at the Pentagon, but it did include authentication information needed so the president could communicate with the JCS war room and issue nuclear strike orders. Neither Horton’s nor Manchester’s account mentioned the Emergency Action Papers.

More information reached the public in 1980 when William Gulley, the former director of the White House Military Office, published a memoir, Breaking Cover. Gulley’s book was controversial in part because it included sensational charges about White House spending abuses, but it included interesting points about the Football. One was that most presidents had not been very interested in it and seldom asked for updates about the Football’s changing contents (changes in strike options, targeting, etc.). Gulley further observed that there was “a kind of mythology” that the Football is an “ever ready Answer Box” for presidential action in a crisis. “The truth is that it raises as many questions as it answers.” Gulley explained that if the United States was under attack, the president would have to quickly make complex decisions in minutes about retaliatory options. The implication was that the information in the Football was so complex and demanding that few presidents had the background needed to make sound decisions in a crisis.[5]

From all accounts President Jimmy Carter immersed himself in the details of nuclear planning so it is possible that he became conversant with the Football’s contents, including the SIOP handbook.[6] Yet as far as this writer knows, no substantive information about his or other presidents’ briefings about the Football has been declassified. One of the few pieces of declassified information concerns the Reagan administration: a few days before the inauguration, White House military aide Major John Kline briefed president-elect Ronald Reagan about White House emergency communications procedures “in the event of an attack.” Later in the year, on 16 November 1981, Kline provided “additional detail regarding the ‘black bag’ that the aides carry – and its role in the strategic release process.” Yet as far as this writer knows, except for the briefing to John F. Kennedy [See Document 1], substantive information about the briefings for presidents, much less the “Football’s” specific contents, remains secret.

Additional research and declassifications may shed more light on the history of the Football, presidential briefings about it, and how its contents have changed over the years. The memorandum that General Goodpaster prepared of the briefing for president-elect Kennedy is exemplary for providing some information about the “satchel’s” contents. Whether comparable records of related briefings during subsequent presidential transitions were prepared needs further investigation.

Read the documents

Notes

[1] See for example, Bruce Blair, “Strengthening Checks on Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority,” Arms Control Today, January-February 2018; Alex Wellerstein, "No one can stop President Trump from using nuclear weapons. That's by design." Washington Post, 1 December 2016; Alex Wellerstein and Avner Cohen, "If Trump wants to use nuclear weapons, whether it’s ‘legal’ won’t matter": Washington Post, 22 November 2017, and Amy Wolf, “Defense Primer: Command and Control of Nuclear Forces,” Congressional Research Service, 1 December 2016.

[2] The very useful print and on-line discussion of the Football and its history frequently asserts that “Football” derives from a code word, “Drop-kick,” either for the first SIOP or an early U.S. nuclear war plan. The implication is that a drop-kick required a football. That may be the case, but no evidence supports this claim. There is no evidence of a U.S. war plan code-named Drop-kick, although a special study of war planning requirements was code-named DROPSHOT while the code-name of another one, OFFTACKLE, referred to a football play. The only place where a reference to “Drop-kick” can be found is in a statement by General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

[3] Bob Horton, “Instant Nuclear Readiness; ’Box’ Follows President,” The Baltimore Sun, 21 November 1965. Thanks to Alex Wellerstein, Stevens Institute of Technology, for providing a copy of this fascinating article.

[4] William Manchester, The Death of a President November 20-November 25 1963 (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 62-63, 261, 321.

[5] Billy Gulley with Mary Ellen Reese, Breaking Cover, (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1980), 15, 187-190, 193; also cited in Daniel Ford, The Button: The Pentagon’s Strategic Command and Control System (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), 89-90.  It is worth noting that White House military aides have played a wide variety of roles. depending on the wishes and the personal style of the president whom they served; carrying the Football has been only one responsibility.  Charles H. Mead, an Air Force aide during the Ford administration, recalls any number of tasks, including serving as advance man for speeches, setting golf-tee times, making sure Ford’s favorite pipe tobacco was at hand, and setting up arrangements for an upcoming International Summit. E-mail to editor from Charles H. Mead, 29 June 2018. 

[6] On Carter’s interest, see Daniel Ford, The Button, 26-27, and Garrett M. Graff, Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself- While the Rest of Us Die (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 248, 250-252.

[7] This important document is cited in David F. Krugler’s valuable study, This Is Only a Test: How Washington D.C. Prepared for Nuclear War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 169-171 and 232, note 5.

[8] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Waging Peace, 1956-1961 (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1965), 617.

[9] According to Goodpaster, underlying the emergency orders was the assumption that “martial law, martial rule” would be in effect. See Krugler, This Is Only a Test, 162.

[10] Shepard’s questions were first quoted in Scott Sagan’s The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1993), at 149. See also Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of a European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), at 294.

[11] Johnson’s preferences in this area are corroborated by other sources; see Garrett M. Graff, Raven Rock, 177. His apparent aversion to the presence of military aides nearby may have had something to do with his determination to “lower the military presence” in the White House, which he saw as excessive, and to replace, without firing outright, General Clifton and others in the Military Office whom he saw as being part of the Kennedy crowd.  See Gulley. Breaking Cover, 47-49.  By contrast, Johnson apparently did not mind having his own man, Col. James U. Cross, Clifton’s successor, carrying the Football, close at hand, during a flight across New Zealand in October 1966. See James U. Cross with Denise Gamino and Gary Rice, Around the World With LBJ: My Wild Ride as Air Force Pilot, White House Aide, and Personal Confident (Austin: University of Texas, 2008), 112.