23 July 2018

Presidential Control of Nuclear Weapons: The "Football"

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

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. 

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.

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.

Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Ann Whitman Files, Presidential Transition Series, box 1, Memos re Change of Administration (4)[7]

On 19 January 1961, the day before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, President Eisenhower and General Goodpaster gave the president-elect a briefing on the contents of the emergency satchel whose contents related to the “operational arrangements and preparations in existence so the president could give direction to the government and the nation in the event of emergency.” The bag included a book of Emergency Action Documents that were ready for a presidential signature. For perspective on emergency planning and the EADs, Goodpaster showed Kennedy “Plan D-Minus.” Included in the satchel was the text of a document for calling Congress into special session and the unspecified use of FBI offices “at that time” (possibly for bringing members of Congress to the Greenbrier). Another document related to authorizing the use of nuclear weapons in an emergency.

Goodpaster also showed Kennedy a “book containing the policy statement, instructions, and controls on the matter of existing advance authorizations for the use of atomic weapons” designed so that “the U.S. could not be caught by surprise.” Those were the predelegationarrangements that remained secret for many years. Another book described the Defense Department’s “emergency actions,” possibly a reference to DEFCONS [Defense Readiness Conditions] and the means by which the Joint Chiefs would communicate with the president “in event of an emergency.”

Goodpaster’s briefing covered emergency plans to move the president and his family, emergency facilities [at Mount Weather and other locations] “from which he would operate, and the initial operations [also not specified] planned to be performed.” Goodpaster also reviewed the “arrangement” that President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon had established in the event that the president was temporarily incapacitated: “the Vice President would accede to the powers of the Chief Executive.” Although Eisenhower may not have mentioned it, Nixon had been routinely accompanied by his own emergency satchel-holder. For his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy made no such arrangement.

During the briefing, Eisenhower said something to this effect to Kennedy: the satchel would be “carried by an unobtrusive man who would shadow the president for all his days in office.” To demonstrate the White House’s emergency capabilities, Eisenhower later recounted that he pushed a button, said “Send a chopper,” and in six minutes “a helicopter sat down on the lawn outside my oval office.”[8]

Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Office of White House Staff Secretary, Emergency Action Series, box 2, Fed. Emergency Plans (1), copy from Declassified Documents Reference Service.

One of the items in the emergency satchel that General Goodpaster mentioned in the briefing to John F. Kennedy was Federal Emergency Plan D-Minus. This Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization report reviewed plans for U.S. government actions in emergency conditions, including the Emergency Action Documents that would be signed in those conditions. If emergency measures did not have a statutory basis and trying to obtain the proper authority would “jeopardize the national security, the extraordinary powers of the President under the Constitution shall be used as legal authority for the required actions.”

Among the documents cited, and presumably included in the satchel, were several proclamations. One declared “the existence of an unlimited national emergency and a state of civil defense emergency.” Given the assumption that nuclear war would involve disastrous breakdowns of civil society and government at all levels, the various orders and proclamations provided for broad assumption of authority by federal officials. One proclamation provided that whenever the Director of [Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization] determines that a state government or political subdivision thereof is unable or unwilling to perform essential civil functions,” the Director would take responsibility for those functions with assistance from military commanders that had resources “not needed for the conduct of military operations.” Another proclamation established what amounted to martial law, such as authorizing the secretary of defense when “necessary to maintain public order and enforce Federal, State and local laws.”[9]Other proclamations authorized “apprehension of persons considered dangerous to national security” while an executive order established an Office of Censorship.

Source: John F. Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1/62-12/62

With the Berlin situation on his mind as a possible source for a nuclear conflict, President Kennedy even considered the possibility of a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union in the event that country was preparing an attack. Although the “black bag” included information on how to the Joint Chiefs would get in touch with the president, Kennedy wanted more than that: he sought a reliable set of procedures in place for the control of nuclear use decisions. According to questions prepared for JCS Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer by White House naval aide Captain Tazewell Shepard, the president wanted to know whether in an emergency he could order a nuclear strike without consulting the Joint Chiefs or the secretary of defense, what he would say to the War Room when he called, how could it be proven that the caller was in fact the president, and whether it was necessary to authenticate to the secretary of defense presidential approvals for nuclear weapons use. For Shepard the key problem was whether the procedures described in the “JCS Emergency Actions File” were flexible enough to enable the president to take such actions. Plainly, Kennedy did not want to be in a position where he would only say “yes” or “no” to the Joint Chief’s request for strike authorization in a crisis.[10]

Source: John F. Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1/62-12/62

No record has surfaced of the Kennedy-Leminitzer meeting, but according to Bundy the takeaway from the discussion was that the president expected to be able “to initiate, as well as participate in, an emergency conference with the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Apparently, this framework would create routines for authenticating the president’s identity so that nuclear weapons use decisions could be made. In order to develop experience at the Joint War Room so that staff could handle a presidential request for an emergency conference, Bundy advised McNamara that Captain Tazewell would be carrying out “random” drills to set up “conference checks” with the secretary and the Joint Chiefs. The “drill” could cause some inconvenience but “occasional practice has become a necessity.”


Source: National Archives, Record Group 218, Records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (RG 218), Records of JCS Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer, box 1, CMs.

One other point can be made about the Kennedy-Lemnitzer meeting: that the president got fairly deep in to the weeds of nuclear targeting, as indicated by a question that he asked about SIOP targeting of Poland. The response that went to Kennedy cannot be found at the JFK Library and a copy was not kept in Lemnitzer’s papers. But the JCS had such information at hand; for example, according to a June 1961 report, Warsaw Pact air bases in Poland would have been slated for targeting (along with others in Eastern Europe). If the alert force had been launched, casualties in Poland would have been in the 497,000 range; a full force attack would have caused at least 2.6 million casualties.

Perhaps Kennedy wanted the information to get a better grasp of the targeting of Soviet satellite countries and the provisions planned for SIOP 63 for the possibility of withholding nuclear strikes against those countries or China.


Source: RG 218, Chairman Maxwell Taylor Papers, box 2, 031.1. Meetings with the President October 1962

By the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, if not earlier, the satchel carried by military aides had another moniker: the “President’s Black Bag.” What information was being revised for inclusion remains unknown.


Source: RG 218, Maxwell Taylor Papers, box 2, 031.1. Meetings with the President October 1962

The JCS had provided the president’s naval aide, Captain Shepard, with an “Emergency Actions Folder,” presumably for inclusion in the “Black Bag.” The “folder” may have been an update of the “Emergency Actions File,” with more provisions for presidential initiative, as requested in document 1. According to Shepard, the information met White House requirements “very satisfactorily,” perhaps a reference to the flexibility that President Kennedy had requested earlier in the year. Apparently, the folder included information on military actions required by various Defense Readiness Conditions (DEFCONS), complementing the more detailed information that would be available to the Joint Chiefs.


Source: RG 218, Chairman Maxwell Taylor Papers, box 1. CM 1963 619-63 -- 698-63

One of the key elements in the Black Bag would be the “SIOP Execution Handbook” laying out the key nuclear strike options available to the president as codified in the SIOP. Basic work on the handbook had been done so that it could be considered further by the Chiefs as well as by the president and the secretary of defense “if appropriate.” More work was to be done, however, especially on the “Consequences” section which would estimate the fatalities and industrial damage that would result in the Free World and the Sino-Soviet bloc caused by SIOP execution. In addition, the section would estimate the residual nuclear forces that would be available to both sides. A recent war game had resulted in a “more favorable Free World posture” and Taylor believed that should be taken into account in the “Consequences” section.


Source: RG 218, Maxwell Taylor Papers, box 1, CM 669-63---795-63

A month later, the first “SIOP Execution Handbook” had been completed and Taylor found it to be a “valuable compendium of data for ready reference,” providing in “outline and summary form a discussion of the major decisions required for implementing the SIOP.” He asked the Joint Chiefs for their comments.


Source: RG 218, Maxwell Taylor Papers, box 35, Memos from President 1963

During this meeting, General Taylor presented Kennedy with a copy of the “SIOP Execution Handbook.” After Taylor reviewed the decisions required for SIOP implementation, Kennedy asked questions about the handbook.


Source: RG 218, Maxwell Taylor Papers, box 1, CM-1051-63 -- CM-1102-63

In the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay wanted to get the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, up to speed on the SIOP. He proposed a special command post exercise (CPX) to “familiarize him with the intelligence that would probably be available, the military considerations involved, and the decisions that he would have to make in order to execute the SIOP.” Despite LeMay’s efforts, Johnson was not interested.


Source: RG 218, Maxwell Taylor Papers, box 2, 031.1 Meetings with the President

One of Taylor’s aides handed off the latest version of the “Gold Book,” which covered the emergency actions that the Joint Chiefs would take during an emergency. The “Gold Book” would be part of the president’s “emergency kit.”


Source: RG 218, Maxwell Taylor Papers, box 2, CM 1964 1163-64--1229-64

With the “Gold Book” finalized, the handbook for the “Execution of the JCS Single Integrated Operational Plan” had also been updated so that it reflected the latest version of the war plan, SIOP-64. Recommending reproduction and distribution to the appropriate officials, Taylor noted that the “decision section” had been reorganized so that it had a breakdown of the recommendations that the Chiefs would make to the president, the decisions that the latter would have to make, and the “implementing directives” that the Chiefs would issue to the appropriate military commands.


Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Files of C.V. Clifton., box 1, Gold Book

A discussion of the possible role of the secretary of state in emergency “Gold Book” conferences provided an explanation of what the “Gold Book” was actually about. According to General Clifton, the Joint Chiefs saw the “Gold Book business ... [as] really a military command procedure in which they would go down the line after national decisions have been taken.” Presumably, the secretary of state would participate in the basic “national decisions” about the use of nuclear weapons.


Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Files of C.V. Clifton, Box 1, Gold Book

General Clifton relayed to Bundy the Joint Chiefs’ continuing interest in the president’s participation in a “small-scale ‘command post exercise,” where the Chiefs went over the SIOP with the president, Bundy, and the “aides who are going to cart the Gold Book around.” Based on a scenario, it would involve a “typical situation involving SlOP and the Gold Book -- national decisions, etc., and the choices he would have to make.” By having the military aides and other key staff members as observers at the exercise, they would learn how they would be “able to help the President in an emergency.” According to Clifton, Joint Staff Director General Andrew Goodpaster wanted staff members present, but advised the briefers to be careful not to mention the super-secret “Furtherance” instructions concerning the emergency pre-delegation of presidential nuclear use decisions.


Source: LBJ, National Security File. Files of C.V. Clifton, box 2. SIOP

Prepared by two of President Johnson’s military aides, this memorandum describes the SIOP briefing given to President Johnson by Joint Staff vice director J-3 (operations) General John McPherson. The briefing reviewed the “five decisions [not specified] which the President must make, together with the advice he might expect from the Joint Chiefs for each decision,” the JCS’s procedures for implementing the decisions, and the “consequences of SlOP execution in terms of human casualties.”

Apparently “absorbed” by the briefing, Johnson “expressed particular interest in the casualties which would result from a nuclear exchange.” When he asked what would happen if a crisis occurred when he was in mid-air, Wheeler said that the Chiefs would communicate with him by radio and implied that General Clifton or other military aides would help the president with the “interpretation of the problem at hand.” Generals LeMay and Wheeler made another effort to convince Johnson to participate in a SIOP exercise, but no president would be willing to do so until Jimmy Carter.


Source: LBJL Files of C.V. Clifton, box 1, Hold for CVC, Volume 1

In a proposal to define the responsibilities of the White House military aide in connection with procedures for presidential decisions during a military crisis, Clifton provided some perspective on the history of the Football and its antecedents: “the development of the requirement for the president to have certain documents accompanying him and be made available to him on short notice has developed over the past 15 years, largely because of the possibility of the Presidency being destroyed by nuclear attack.” But the Football’s contents and presidential communications requirements expanded with the growing complexity of the emergency response problem (development of SIOP and options, predelegation arrangements, etc.)

Mentioned in this document were unspecified rulings by the Attorney General concerning presidential decisions on the use of nuclear weapons. Also mentioned was the was the formal role, beginning in 1958-1960, of the White House Communications Agency [then known as the White House Signals Detachment] in the transportation of the “emergency powers documents.”


Source: LBJL Files of C.V. Clifton, box 1, Hold for CVC, Volume 1

This massively excised document, probably drafted by Clifton who retired in June 1965, suggests that President Johnson did not like to be “followed so closely” by the Football carrier and that he had discussed with McNamara a system that would eliminate the “need for an aide to be in constant attendance upon him.” As those sentences were crossed out, Clifton may have thought that they were too indiscreet or perhaps the situation changed.[11] In any event, he proposed a new system by which the White House Communications Agency would maintain constant communications with the president. Clifton also suggested consolidation of the PEADS into the two or three most important documents that the president would need “very quickly.”

Thinking more broadly in terms of continuity of government and presidential succession, Clifton recommended arrangements to ensure that the vice president and the next two presidential successors could be located and communicated with whenever the president was traveling.


Source: LBJL Files of C.V. Clifton, box 1, Hold for CVC, Volume 1

This may be the only declassified document that actually mentions the Football, which apparently was heavy enough that the weight problem was mentioned twice. In this massively excised memorandum, Naval aide Josephson provided his thoughts on the Football, Presidential Emergency Action Documents (PEADS), the SIOP, secure communications, and the duties of White House military aides. Possibly new Presidential Emergency Action Documents had been added to the Football, thus increasing its weight. Josephson did not see that as a problem but was concerned that because only a few of the PEADS had actually been approved by the president, there could be some question of legality. In any event, Josephson wanted to make sure in a crisis that the president could sign off on essential orders before something happened to him. Besides the Football’s weight, the other issue that came through was whether SIOP execution should involve coordination between the national security adviser and the Joint Chiefs. Josephson did not believe that it should, apparently thinking that there should be no mediation between the president and the Joint Chiefs

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