Playing Nuclear Football: Processes and Problems of Nuclear Launch

Jacob Wolf
March 17, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: The nuclear football (also known as the atomic football, the president's 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. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Imagining nuclear war is not particularly pleasant. Nevertheless, there are many popular icons and representations of this unpleasant idea. Perhaps you think of missiles rising out of grain silos somewhere in the midwest United States. Maybe you think of a cartoonish red button sitting on a desk somewhere. Or maybe you think of "the football," a black leather case which follows the president of the United States everywhere and carries the power to destroy worlds (Fig. 1).

Officially known as the president's emergency satchel, the Football arose during the Cold War as a result of John F. Kennedy's concerns about the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Uncertain of how he would initiate an attack or how the instructions to launch an attack could be verified, JFK ordered the development of a process that would secure the ability to launch an attack and provide options for launching an attack that were more nuanced than the all or nothing plan. Supposedly, one such early nuclear war plan was code-named Dropkick, and so the black briefcase carrying the tools to initiated it was referred to as the football. [1] The football has since been refined and developed over time to be lighter and to contain simpler representations of the options of a nuclear attack. However, as with JFK in the 1960s, today the football, carried by a top-level security aide, follows the current president everywhere he goes.

The Process

But what exactly is the process for becoming the destroyer of worlds? What types of decisions must the president make and how much autonomy does the president have to make them? Under the current procedures, the answer, essentially, is complete autonomy. Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, described the process that would allow 20 minutes to make the largest decision the president can make. If a nuclear attack appeared to be underway, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command would receive a call with the information and have 2 to 3 minutes to decide if the warning was real or false. If the commander determined it to be real, he would have 10 minutes to develop a recommendation for action and make the recommendation to the president. [2] Even without a warning of an incoming attack, the president has the ability to launch a first use attack. In this case, the president would open the football and use a visual guide to choose between a set of options for nuclear attacks which has been described as a Denny's menu of nuclear war. [3]

The Problems of Unilateral Power

In both the response and the first use case, it is expected that the president will consult with close military and civilian advisors when making the decision about whether to launch an attack and what type of attack to launch. However, this expectation is not a requirement, and the president has the option to bypass any recommendations, including those by the Secretary of Defense. [4] After the decision has been made, the president communicates it to the Pentagon and uses a short code phrase on a card called the "biscuit" to identify himself as the president. [1,3] This decision radiates down the chain of command where, at every level, at least two different people must confirm the codes before executing their orders. This two-man rule guards against accidental or malicious nuclear launches. [3]

However, the two-man rule is nonexistent at the most important point in the chain: the decision point where the president chooses the course of action. This singular decision making capability raises problems for both the legality of the presidents decision as well as the authenticity of the decision. The decision to initiate a first use attack could be determined to be unconstitutional, but the president would still be able to issue the order to strike which would be difficult to challenge in the chain of command. Additionally, because there is only a single decider, it is easier for a malicious force to hack the system and issue an unauthorized launch or for a technical glitch to mimic a presidential order. [4]


With the rise of concern surrounding nuclear escalation between the U.S. and North Korea manifested in tweets and statements made by President Trump, there has been a reinvigoration of discussion surrounding the unilateral power of the president to make decisions about nuclear war. [4] When Trump's actions began to reflect the Madman Theory utilized by Nixon in the 70s to [threaten] the Soviets and the Vietnamese that he might actually be crazy enough to nuke Hanoi or Moscow, the U.S. Congress held a hearing in November 2017 to consider changes to the unilateral authority held - and brandished - by the president. [3,4] During this hearing, senators were not assured of the viability and rationality of the current process. [4] However, murky constitutional waters, as well as a hesitancy to impose checks on the power of the executive branch, allowed the nuclear football, and the unilateral power it represents, to live another day.

© Jacob Wolf. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. Dobbs, "The Real Story of the Football That Follows the President Everywhere," Smithsonian Magazine, Oct 14.

[2] R. S. McNamara, "Apocalypse Soon," Foreign Policy, No. 148, 29 (May-Jun 2005).

[3] G. M. Graff, "The Madman and the Bomb," Politico Magazine, 11 Aug 17.

[4] R. K. Betts and M. C. Waxman, "The President and the Bomb," Wired Magazine, Mar/Apr 2018.