The nuclear football (also known as the atomic football, the Presidential Emergency Satchel, the button, the black box, or just the football) is a briefcase, the contents of which are to be used by the President of the United States to authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers, such as the White House Situation Room. It functions as a mobile hub in the strategic defense system of the United States. It is held by an aide-de-camp.
There is no definitive story why it is called a “football”. An Associated Press article stated that the nickname "football" was derived from an attack plan codenamed "Dropkick". The nickname has led to some confusion as to the nature—and even the shape—of the device, as the jacket appears large enough to contain an actual football
According to former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the Football acquired its name from an early nuclear war plan code-named “Dropkick.” (“Dropkick” needed a “football” in order to be put into effect.) The earliest known photograph of a military aide trailing the president with the telltale black briefcase (a modified version of a standard Zero-Halliburton model) was taken on May 10, 1963, at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Since 1963, the Football has become a staple of presidential trips, and was even photographed in Red Square in May 1988, accompanying President Ronald Reagan on a state visit to the Soviet Union. (Reagan’s Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, was accompanied by a military aide who was clutching a very similar device, known in Russian as the chemodanchik, or “little briefcase.”) There are three. The president has one, the vice president has one and a backup is stored at the White House.
Officially known as the “president’s emergency satchel,” the so-called nuclear “Football”—portable and hand-carried—is built around a sturdy aluminum frame, encased in black leather. A retired Football, emptied of its top-secret inner contents, is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “We were looking for something that would demonstrate the incredible military power and responsibilities of the president, and we struck upon this iconic object,” says curator Harry Rubenstein.
The football dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, but its current usage came about in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when John F. Kennedy was concerned that a Soviet commander in Cuba might launch missiles without authorization from Moscow.
Kennedy asked several questions related to the release of US nuclear weapons. These were:
• "Assuming that information from a closely guarded source causes me to conclude that the U.S. should launch an immediate nuclear strike against the Communist Bloc, does the JCS Emergency Actions File permit me to initiate such an attack without first consulting with the Secretary of Defense and/or the Joint Chiefs of Staff?"
• "I know that the red button on my desk phone will connect me with the White House Army Signal Agency (WHASA) switchboard and that the WHASA switchboard can connect me immediately to the Joint War Room. If I called the Joint War Room without giving them advance notice, to whom would I be speaking?"
• "What would I say to the Joint War Room to launch an immediate nuclear strike?"
• "How would the person who received my instructions verify them?"
During their presidencies, both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan preferred to keep the launch codes in their jacket pockets. Congressman John Kline served as a colonel in the United States Marine Corps and carried the football for Presidents Carter and Reagan.
The coded card was separated from Ronald Reagan immediately after the 1981 assassination attempt against him. He was separated from it when his clothing was cut off by the emergency room trauma team. It was later discovered unsecured lying in one of his shoes on the emergency room floor. This led to an urban legend that Reagan carried the code in his sock. Reagan was separated from the rest of the football as well, because the officer who carried it was left behind as the motorcade sped away with the wounded president.
This past year at the Super Bowl, Atlanta Falcons Offensive Coordinator, now head coach of the San Francisco 49’ers Kyle Shanhan, lost his backpack with his computer that had all the Super Bowl game plans. He was lucky, it was recovered and returned to him. Presidents have also been separated from their “football” but with similar good end results.
This happened to Nixon in 1973; after Nixon presented Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev with a Lincoln Continental at Camp David, Brezhnev unexpectedly drove with Nixon off the retreat onto a highway while leaving Nixon's Secret Service personnel behind, separating Nixon from the football (and his security detail) for nearly 30 minutes. Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and, most recently, Bill Clinton have also been separated from the football.
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