The Story Behind the Nuclear Football: The Mysterious Briefcase the President Carries Everywhere

It's a mysterious black leather bag with a curious past, a strange nickname, and some dangerously funny stories surrounding it. Here's the story behind the president's Nuclear Football.

What is the Nuclear Football?

Officially known as the “president’s emergency satchel,” per Smithsonian Magazine, the President’s Nuclear Football isn’t actually a football at all. Wrapped in black leather instead of brown pigskin, and framed in rigid aluminum, this satchel contains all the equipment necessary to allow him, “to communicate with the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon,” the organization constantly monitoring nuclear threats, and to order a nuclear attack.

Then why is it called a football?

Possibly proving that football—not baseball— is America’s true pastime, this nuclear response satchel is called the Nuclear Football because of its portability and because it is carried by hand along with, we imagine, with the fiercest stiff-arm imaginable should someone try to tackle this particular ball carrier. The nickname Nuclear Football also comes from the word “dropkick,” per the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a code name given to a secret nuclear-war plan.

There’s no red nuclear button

President Barack Obama boards Marine One to visit Orlando, from the White House, Washington DC, USA - 16 Jun 2016Greg Mathieson/Shutterstock

You probably think that inside the commander in chief’s top-secret Nuclear Football, there’s a red button allowing him to launch a nuclear attack. There is not. However, there is a menu of nuclear war plans. Much like a restaurant menu, the President could decide to order the elimination of a single place posing a threat to the United States or supersize the level of attack if necessary in the event of a national security risk. Red button or not, having that much power makes a president age faster than a civilian. Check out these before-and-after photos of how U.S. Presidents have aged in office.

When is this football in play?

The Nuclear Football is only in play when the president is away from the White House, per Atomic Heritage. When is rooted in D.C., the Situation Room is utilized for national security threats. But on the road, the Nuclear Football is always within the president’s reach for an emergency handoff, from inside elevators to hotel rooms and everywhere else he should travel. A president can order a nuclear attack but here are ten things the president is not allowed to do.

What’s inside the Nuclear Football?

According to Bill Gulley, former director of the White House Military Office, in his 1980 book Breaking Cover: “There are four things in the Football. A 75-page black book of retaliatory nuclear-strike options printed in black and red ink, another black book listing classified site locations to shelter and secure the president, a manila folder with eight or ten pages stapled together giving a description of procedures for the Emergency Broadcast System, and a three-by-five inch card with authentication codes.” Additionally, an antenna may be seen poking out of the world’s most top-secret football, suggesting there is likely communications equipment more elaborate than a burner phone tucked inside with all the books, folders, and index card.

The president doesn’t carry it

military aid (R) carries the so-called nuclear footballJim Lo Scalzo/Shutterstock

While the Nuclear Football is always within his reach while away from the White House, the President of the United States does not actually carry the top-secret black leather satchel. According to Business Insider, the Nuclear Football is “hand-carried by one of five military aides.”

But the president does carry “the biscuit”

There’s a credit-card-sized piece of plastic nicknamed “the biscuit” that the president carries at all times—well that’s the plan anyway. This small top-secret document contains the codes needed to order the launch of nuclear weapons and it can be a five-alarm fire, figuratively speaking, if the biscuit goes missing.

Alarmingly, the biscuit has, quite famously, gone missing a few times throughout the Nuclear Football’s half-decade lifespan according to

  • Jimmy Carter is said to have inadvertently lost his version of the biscuit his when a suit was sent to the dry cleaners.
  • After the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, the 40th president’s biscuit was dumped in a plastic bag at the hospital along with the clothes he was wearing at the time of the shooting.
  • And, according to General Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, “The Nuclear Football codes were actually missing for months,” during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

A recent fumble in China

The Nuclear Football was in the news recently when the satchel nearly caused an international incident during President Trump’s visit to China. According to The Guardian, security details of both countries clashed when Chinese agents tried to stop the football from entering Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Shoving ensued involving then Chief of Staff John Kelly, but thankfully the fracas was de-escalated quickly. A high IQ should be a standard in a commander in chief, here are the U.S. Presidents with the highest IQ scores.

When did the Nuclear Football enter the field of play?

The earliest known photograph of one of the president’s military aides carrying the now-famous top secret black briefcase was taken on May 10, 1963, at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, per Smithsonian Magazine (a retired Nuclear Football, emptied of its top-secret contents, is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History). The magazine goes on to note that while the full origin story of the Nuclear Football is still highly classified, the history of the black leather bag with black books and an index card with authentication codes that allows the commander-in-chief to order the launching of a nuclear attack, can be traced back to John F. Kennedy and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Find out some facts about the other famous American football.

The Vice President has a football too

According to CNN, the president isn’t the only American with a Nuclear Football within an arm’s length at any given moment. Should the president be incapacitated, the Vice President of the United States will be trailed by a military aide carrying a secondary black leather satchel containing the same books, folder, information, and top-secret communication technology to discuss the emergency with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and order a nuclear attack against an enemy. Read on for 13 things you didn’t know about the Vice Presidency.

Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award–winning photographer, avid traveler and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment and more for Reader's Digest. He is the proud dad of teen daughters.