What is the nuclear football ? 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
How safe is the U.S. president’s ‘nuclear football’? Pentagon watchdog to find out
WASHINGTON, July 20 (Reuters) – The Pentagon’s watchdog said on Tuesday it would evaluate the safety protocols surrounding the president’s “nuclear football” – containing codes needed for a strike – after one such briefcase nearly came within range of rioters storming the Capitol on Jan. 6.
In a brief notice, the Inspector General’s office said it would evaluate the extent to which Pentagon officials could detect and respond if the Presidential Emergency Satchel were “lost, stolen or compromised.”
“We may revise the objective as the evaluation proceeds,” it said.
One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said concerns surrounding the Jan. 6 siege helped trigger the evaluation. On that date, Vice President Mike Pence was at the U.S. Capitol, accompanied by a military aide carrying a backup nuclear football when the building was stormed by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
The satchel holds the codes the president would use to authenticate an order to launch nuclear missiles should he or she not be at the White House.
Security footage made public during Trump’s subsequent impeachment trial showed Pence and the military aide – who had the satchel – being ushered to safety as protesters got closer to their location.
“At no point was it ever compromised,” said a source familiar with the situation.
Here’s where the ‘nuclear football’ came from and why it follows US presidents wherever they go
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.
What Is the Nuclear ‘Button’ and Where Did It Come From?
Since John F. Kennedy, every president has had an officer that follows him around with the so-called “nuclear football,” a briefcase that can be used to launch a nuclear attack (it got its nickname from a nuclear war plan called “dropkick”). This is something the president would do not with a button but with his personal nuclear codes, which he also must carry on him at all times.
It’s a pretty big decision to place in the hands of one person, and an executive power that Congress has challenged under President Donald Trump’s administration. So far, no president has ever actually used the football—but still, why does the decision about starting nuclear war come down to the discretion of just one person?
Interestingly, the only president in history to approve a nuclear attack—Harry S. Truman—wasn’t actually very involved in the decision. Although he knew an attack was planned, military officials executed it on their own. Truman was on a ship when the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. He didn’t hear about the actual bombing until roughly 16 hours later, after he’d already spent some time relaxing on deck while a band played.
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