The Presidential Nuclear "Football" from Eisenhower to George W. Bush - 12 minutes read

Washington, D.C., July 18, 2023 – A set of highly secret emergency action plans kept inside the closely guarded “Football” that traveled with the President at all times and that would give the federal government sweeping emergency powers were of “doubtful legality,” “badly out of date,” and “even illegal,” according to top government officials whose views are memorialized in declassified records posted today by the National Security Archive.

Since the late 1950s, U.S. military personnel traveling with the President have carried a special case known variously as the “satchel,” the “black bag,” the “emergency actions pouch” and, as it is perhaps best known, the “Football.” Epitomizing presidential control of nuclear weapons, the Football and the military aides who carry it enable the President to make decisions about the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a sudden military crisis.

While the existence of the Football has been known since the 1960s, reliable details about its contents have been relatively scarce. During the Cold War, and possibly later, they included proclamations and executive orders known as Presidential Emergency Action Documents (PEADs) for use in a national emergency. Edward A. McDermott, who led the federal Office of Emergency Planning in the 1960s, said the purpose of the documents was “to clothe the President with formal emergency powers,” although he said some were of “doubtful legality,” perhaps because they included the suspension of habeas corpus, a declaration of martial law, and the authorization of mass arrests and arbitrary detentions.

Today’s posting by the National Security Archive includes several documents about the contents of the PEADs and the Carter administration’s efforts to revise directives considered “badly out of date.” The President’s second cousin, Hugh Carter, Jr., who played a leading role in White House emergency planning, said he was “concerned that the entire PEADs series is obsolete given the total devastation which could be expected from a thermonuclear attack.” By 1980, the PEADs had been revised and updated and were ready to be placed in the President’s “emergency portfolio.”

Also included in the posting are documents on the Carter administration’s arrangements to assign a Football to Vice President Walter Mondale, with one permanently stationed at his residence. This was in keeping with Mondale's substantive and innovative role in national security policy. It remains unclear whether the four vice presidents who held the office between Johnson and Mondale were assigned Footballs, but so far there is no evidence to suggest that they were.

The posting also includes excerpts from interviews conducted by William Manchester while researching his book, The Death of a President (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), which shed light on the Football arrangements during the Kennedy administration. General Chester Clifton, one of the White House military aides who was with Kennedy in Dallas on the day he was assassinated, explained that a military aide was always near the President because the Football included "emergency war orders.”

According to Captain Tazewell Shepard, Naval Aide to President Kennedy, the military aides had responsibility for the contents of the Football “whenever and wherever the President goes.” The exception was when the President was in Washington, D.C., in which case the satchel stayed at the White House and did not “chase him around.”

Today’s posting also features a gallery of recently released photos from the George W. Bush Presidential Library showing military officers carrying the Football in a variety of situations, including during overseas travel with the President. Released as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request, the images show the routine and unique role played by the Football and its handlers in presidential entourages. Some of the photos were released with excisions while other images were denied in full.



The existence of the Football became publicly known in the first few years of the Johnson administration. The first mention of it in the national press may have been in the syndicated “Allen-Scott Report” in July 1965 which quoted White House aide Jack Valenti saying that that “the ‘black bag’ or ‘football,’ as we call it, goes wherever the President travels.” The Football connected the President to the Strategic Air Command, according to Valenti, who added that there were a “dozen military aides who carry the briefcase on a shift basis.” The article also suggested that President Johnson may have been uncomfortable with the arrangement because Valenti denied “published reports President Johnson is transferring some of the functions of his military aides to the Pentagon.”[1] Four months later, Bob Horton of The Baltimore Sun reported that the “satchel” included a “portfolio of cryptographic orders” to the Joint Chiefs to authorize a nuclear retaliation. An authorizing message could be sent by telephone, teletype or microwave radio. Horton also learned that, through arrangements established by the Defense Communications Agency, the authorizing messages could be sent to the North American Air Defense Command or the Strategic Air Command.[2]

Manchester’s book was probably the first to mention the Football, and with his focus on interviewing the people who were with and near President Kennedy at the time of his assassination, Manchester learned a great deal about the military aides and warrant officers who traveled with the President and who were responsible for the Football. Among the interviewees were White House military aides, including Tazewell Shepard, Godfrey McHugh, and Chester Clifton, and Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Maxwell Taylor. Excerpts from the interviews, on file at the Wesleyan University Library, are published here for the first time and include rich details about the Football, its contents, and the arrangements for carrying it. While such interviews have to be read cautiously and skeptically, the fact that they took place only months after the events lends them credibility.

One interesting episode that Manchester describes in a footnote is how, in early 1961, President Kennedy’s security staff offered a satchel and a military aide to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who turned down the arrangement for reasons still unknown. While future revelations may help clarify Johnson’s reasons for declining the offer, Manchester’s discussion with Maxwell Taylor confirmed that high level military leaders were concerned that he had not received a briefing about the “contents” of the Football before he became President in Dallas on November 22, 1963.[3] Years later, after he left office, Johnson suggested that he found the presence of the military aide and the Football to be stressful.[4]

One element of the Football’s contents that is seldom discussed is a set of Presidential Emergency Action Documents—previously known as Emergency Action Papers—consisting of presidential proclamations and executive orders on a range of issues for use in a national emergency.[5] Originating during the Eisenhower administration as Emergency Action Documents (or EADs), they derived their presumed “legal authority” from the “extraordinary powers of the President under the Constitution.” While none of them appear to have been declassified, Federal Emergency Plan D-Minus, dated April 1959, outlined them, including one declaring “the existence of an unlimited national emergency and a state of civil defense emergency.” Left unsaid was an imponderable: Who, after nuclear war had begun, would be around to implement, much less obey, such edicts?

One of the proclamations authorized the Director of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization to determine when a state government or one of its political subdivisions was “unable or unwilling to perform essential civil functions” and to “take responsibility for those functions” with the assistance of military commanders who had resources “not needed for the conduct of military operations.” This and another proclamation authorizing the Secretary of Defense “to maintain public order and enforce Federal, State and local laws” when “necessary” would have created the conditions for the imposition of martial law. Another proclamation authorized the “apprehension of persons considered dangerous to national security,” while an executive order established an Office of Censorship to “censor communications crossing the borders of the United States.”

The EADs were later renamed Civil Emergency Action Documents and then Presidential Emergency Action Documents, and their contents have been revised over time, but most of the details remain classified. The results of a 1962 updating, consisting mostly of changes in presentation and organization, were forwarded from Edward McDermott, the Director of the Office of Emergency Planning, to Captain Tazewell Shepard on the White House staff on October 29, 1962. The contents were essentially the same as the EADs that Eisenhower had turned over to the Kennedy administration, although McDermott had plans to “improve” them and add new directives. McDermott said the directives included documents designed to clothe “the President with formal emergency powers, to provide control over individuals for internal security purposes, to dispose of normal administrative requirements, to augment the armed forces, to assume functions of State and local governments in exceptional circumstances, to mobilize resources, and miscellaneous others.” McDermott also had some misgivings, suggesting that some of the orders, which he did not specify, were of “doubtful legality.”

Where McDermott took the PEADs review process after October 1962 remains to be learned but reviewing and updating occurred during the Carter administration. One of the characteristics of Jimmy Carter's Presidency was his significant interest in crisis planning, including the problem of emergency relocation and continuity of government arrangements in the event of nuclear war. This was a period when perceived vulnerabilities made government and military officials more and more apprehensive about the security of command and control systems. Moreover, as recent biographers have pointed out, compared to many of his predecessors, Jimmy Carter was personally secure enough to give Vice President Walter Mondale a significant role in national security policy because he recognized that in a dire emergency the Vice President had to be ready to assume the presidency.  Accordingly, Mondale was assigned a Football and one was eventually deployed to his official residence.[6]

In keeping with the strong interest in emergency planning, White House officials worried about the status of the PEADs. Not only was Zbigniew Brzezinski’s military assistant, William Odom, troubled over the “legality” of some of them, President Carter’s second cousin, Hugh Carter, Jr., who played a key role in White House emergency planning, had become “concerned that the entire PEADs series is obsolete given the total devastation which could be expected from a thermonuclear attack on the US.” Those concerns necessitated “an updated approach to reconstituting order and organization at the local, state and federal levels of the Government.”

What exactly Hugh Carter’s worries meant for the updating of the PEADs is not clear, but the review had been completed by May 1980, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) turned over the updated documents to the White House so they could be included in the Football. What happened to the order concerning habeas corpus is not known. However, it is clear that some legal issues had not been entirely resolved. In one case, FEMA director John Macy said it was inappropriate to seek OMB and DOJ clearance for a PEAD on national resources mobilization that was initially approved by President Richard Nixon in 1970 “because of its reliance on the ‘implied’ powers of the President and in the absence of a definitive legal basis for the PEAD.”

Future declassifications and archival research may shed additional light on the role of the PEADs in federal emergency planning and their evolution during the decades of the Cold War. In particular, long-pending declassification requests now before the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel may someday lead to the release of more details on the Football arrangements during the 1960s.

Note: Thanks to Brenna Larson, Special Collections, Wesleyan University Library, for providing access to the William Manchester interviews, the West Virginia Department of Archives and History for providing a copy of an article from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, and Bill Geerhart for sharing information and insights on the history of the Football. Thanks also to Sarah Barca, George W. Bush Presidential Library, and Youlanda Logan, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, for information on photographs.


Part III: Photos of the Football and Its Holders During the George W. Bush Presidency

Click on the image to see all photos



[1]. Allen-Scott report, Bluefield (West Virginia) Daily Telegraph, 27 July 1965. Confirming some degree of presidential discomfort with the Football system was a 1965 memo in the files of General Chester Clifton reporting that Johnson discussed with McNamara an arrangement to eliminate the “need for an aide to be in constant attendance upon him.” See Untitled two-part draft memorandum, n.d. [1965] in files of Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. The quoted language is crossed out in the memorandum, suggesting that Clifton did not want it to appear in a final version (if one was ever produced).

[2]. Bob Horton, “Instant Nuclear Readiness; ’Box’ Follows President,” The Baltimore Sun, 21 November 1965.

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

[4]. Garret Graff, Raven Rock The Story of the U.S. Government’ Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 177, 250.

[5]. An important exception is the Brennan Center’s research report on Presidential Emergency Action Documents, updated 26 May 2022.

[6]. For Mondale’s precedent-setting vice-presidency, see Jonathan Alter, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 288-290, and Kai Bird, The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter (New York: Penguin Press, 2021).

[7]. Also cited in David Krugler, This Is Only a Test: How Washington D.C. Prepared for Nuclear War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 176.

[8]. Manchester, The Death of a President, 230.

[9]. Bill Gulley with Mary Ellen Reese, Breaking Cover (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), 14-15, 178-191.


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