While the Cuban Missile Crisis gets all the glory for being the week that almost killed everyone, there were several weeks during the Cold War when the world was on the brink of a nuclear war, and no one had a clue. We've briefly mentioned September 26, 1983 before, when a retired Soviet Air Force colonel named Stanislav Petrov decided to let you be alive right now.
We all owe him at least one missile silo filled to the rim with beer.
He was manning an early attack detection booth when the one thing his training had prepared him for happened: His radar suddenly went berserk with what was unmistakably five American nuclear warheads headed straight for Mother Russia. It was actually a once in a lifetime sun glare creating the illusion of five missiles, but Petrov didn't know that. After retiring, and suffering the most well-earned nervous breakdown of all time, he explained that he had kept his cool because the moment wasn't scary enough. His background as an Air Force colonel told him what an American attack would look like. The only thing stopping him from firing back was his gut feeling that the fleet of bombs was a little too small to make sense.
On the left-hand side of the Atlantic, America almost launched a nuclear attack when a bear tripped a border alarm on an Air Force base that somehow got its wires crossed with the airbase's nuclear air raid siren. That time, the fate of the world came down to people in the control tower realizing their error and speeding down the runway to catch a plane that was on its way to drop a litter's worth of Baby Boy's on Russia.
The world record for the number of people saying "shit" simultaneously was shattered that day.
To recap, outside of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has come to nuclear apocalypse looked a hell of a lot like slapstick comedy. It wasn't that Americans and Russians weren't taking this nuclear thing all that seriously, it's just that they were too busy constructing their backup plans for a nuclear attack.
If They'd Gone With Plan B:
Had Petrov launched a nuclear counterattack like his training had told him to, Congress would have been whisked off to a bunker in West Virginia, of all places. Operation Greek Isles worked with the Greenbriar Hotel near the Virginia border to secretly build a giant underground complex to house the members of Congress and their families. The new complex came complete with dorms, kitchens, a complete replica of the House and Senate chambers, a radio system strong enough to allow members of Congress to help calm what was left of the nation and an incinerator for those who got radiation poisoning, because Congress had apparently seen Night of the Living Dead one too many times and thought radiation poisoning required the zombie cure.
The operation was cleverly hidden from guests within the hotel.
Unfortunately, there wasn't room for guests or non-essential staff of the Greenbriar, which is why the guards had orders to shoot any non-Congress people who tried to get in. Nothing like hearing a pool boy get capped and that whole "incinerate the infected" rule to raise the morale of the last Americans on the face of the Earth.
But if you thought the Americans weren't fucking around, you don't speak Russian, which has 25 different words for sacrificing human life (not fucking around being to Russians what snow is to Eskimos). Take for instance the phrase "mertvaya ruka," which means "dead hand" in Russian.
In America, that might be the name of a horror movie or a masturbation technique. In Russia, it is the name given to the giant border-wide robot installed around the city of Moscow whose only job is to kill you and everyone you've ever loved. The robot detected that a nuke had just been dropped. Ol' Dead Hand would run signals up to the silos to double check that nobody was responding. Upon confirming that the people with their finger on the doomsday button were dead (or on a piss break, whatever), the system automatically launched all the Soviet weapons at the United States. No talk. No getting permission. Not even engaging Jimmy Carter in a stern dressing down to see if you could get him to give you New York City. Mertvaya Ruka launched immediately, and cut out the middleman. And the first guy. And the last guy. It was a doomsday robot, is what we're saying here.
The only English it knew was "You are not the boss of me" and "Suck it."
While the Russians are unsettlingly quiet on the matter today, the mysterious UVB-76 radio transmission is believed to be part of Mertvaya Ruka, so it is generally believed to still be active in Moscow.
A few times during his presidency, John F. Kennedy suggested that NASA and the Soviet space program conduct a joint mission to the moon. Kennedy being the first to call NASA's moonshot is pretty well documented. The guy was young and cocky, and it fits perfectly with the version of JFK we like to remember, whose biggest problem was keeping his dick from getting slammed in the window behind the many women he sneaked out of the Oval Office. But actually, Kennedy spent at least part of every day he was in office fretting over his decision, or at least looking at how much the mission to the moon was costing, and muttering "Oh shit oh shit oh shit." From a purely pragmatic perspective, the idea of a shared mission would be a chance for him to offload some of that cost onto the USSR.
And maybe finally get to second base with Khrushchev.
Both times Kennedy suggested the collaboration, the Russians rejected it. At the time, it was assumed that this was out of cockiness or fear that Kennedy would withdraw his outstretched hand and say, "Psych!" while all the Asian and Latin American countries they were both wooing pointed and laughed. But history shows that it was more likely because the Soviets were afraid of showing the Americans just how ass-backward their space program was. Open communication with NASA probably looked to the Soviets like an invitation to shower with the Globetrotters might look to the Washington Generals: They were going to look woefully inadequate in front of people who made a living humiliating them.
"TOO SLOW! HAHAHA! Oh, hey, you got somethin' there on your shirt ..."
But there were also reasons that Kennedy's offer would have looked pretty appealing to head communist Vladimir Khrushchev. The wall of silence between the superpowers was taking its toll on both economies. And since the Soviets were in on the dirty little secret that most of their technology was more in the "glorified bottle rocket with a terrified person strapped on" category, they would have the most to gain. Which is why Khrushchev decided to reverse course and accept Kennedy's offer as part of an effort to scale back the craploads of money they were spending on the Cold War. He realized that it was going to be wildly unpopular with much of the Kremlin, but he also saw what Kennedy saw: a chance to completely change the tenor of the space race and the Cold War at large.
There's also the not insignificant detail that Kennedy was a charming motherfucker, and he and Krushchev had built up a trust. There's apparently a bond that develops between people who have had a 13-day staring contest with the fate of the world on the line. The very week he revealed the world-changing decision to his son, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Johnson made similar offers, but it just wasn't the same. Krushchev didn't trust Johnson to be his wing man on such an important decision. Kruschev's plan to go to the moon with Kennedy while sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, died with Kennedy, and the Cold War went on, business as usual. Possibly 28 years longer than it had to.
"No more! I pull finger, but it only produces the fart!"
If They'd Gone With Plan B:
It's impossible to overstate just how different things could have been if the U.S. and Soviet space programs, one of the key symbols of the technological rivalry between the two superpowers, had joined the same team.
While the U.S. eventually made it to the moon, the value of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chants and souvenir moon rocks gained from the victory would have been outweighed by the strategic partnership (especially when you consider how easy the world has found it to dismiss the moon landing as a hoax). Krushchev's decision, too, was part of an overall plan that would have scaled back the Russian army to 500,000 soldiers from 2.5 million, and diverted spending from weapons to "consumer and commercial, non-military production."
Mostly commemorative plates.
It was like the two leaders were ready to call it a day and begin the process of ending the Cold War 28 years before it actually happened, before the Vietnam War started and before the hippie movement was born in protest. You might not speak a different language if Kennedy hadn't been assassinated, but you probably wouldn't know what the word "groovy" meant, and we think that's a different time line we could all get behind.
For instances that did alter the course of history, check out 6 Uneducated Amateurs Whose Genius Changed the World and 6 Mistranslations That Changed The World.
And stop by LinkSTORM to see Cody playing with this new war simulator he hacked into off the Pentagon's website.
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