For those of us who grew up in the '80s and '90s, it's difficult to fully understand just how close to annihilation we actually came in the 20th century. With the two most powerful nations on Earth threatening to detonate their entire nuclear arsenals at the slightest provocation, one would assume that the respective governments would have treated the situation with the care and respect it deserved (spoiler: they didn't).
At 2 a.m. on June 3, 1980, some poor Air Force staffer deep within the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was working the late night shift when he noticed that the screen readout that usually read "0 Incoming Missiles" suddenly read "2 Incoming Missiles." This was bad enough, but then, perhaps with an innocuous beep, it announced "220 Incoming Missiles."
"Sir, the 'FUCKED' button is lighting up. I'm just going to take my last few minutes to tell you how much of a dick you are."
Alarms sounded everywhere as the Air Force collectively freaked out all across America. Bombers carrying nuclear bombs began taking off throughout the country. Someone woke up National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and told him that the shit was hitting the fan.
Luckily, before anyone could actually fire a missile, someone realized that the hundreds of warheads weren't showing up on the radar screens. The alerts were canceled, bombers landed and everyone took a deep breath and poured a strong Scotch.
"Hey, Jim, why don't you go out and let the looters know they're not going to die?"
It took three days to figure out what happened. It turned out that a simple computer chip was malfunctioning inside the NORAD computers, causing the display to sometimes show 2s when it should have shown 0s. Allegedly, the chip that caused the crisis cost only 46 cents.
"I have the worst case of blue treads."
And that wasn't the only time a tiny glitch almost drove us back to the Stone Age ...
In the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force built a network of early warning radar so they could detect a Soviet attack at some point before North America turned into a field of mushroom clouds. These radar stations were linked by communications lines to the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Nebraska, the Air Force bomber and missile bases and the underground Batcave-style NORAD command center in Wyoming.
So, understandably, quite a few pairs of underpants were soiled on November 24, 1961, when communications between SAC headquarters and the radar sites suddenly went dead. You know, as if they had been suddenly wiped off the map by a surprise attack. SAC tried calling the backup lines. When that didn't work, they tried calling NORAD on the regular civilian telephone, but they couldn't even bring up a dial tone.
"Ugh! I just keep getting that stupid singing message they left when they were all drunk."
At this point, the only conclusion was that the Soviet Union had just nuked all the radar sites, as well as NORAD, as the first wave of a massive, world-ending attack. All over the United States, nuclear-armed B-52s lined up on runways and started their engines. For the next 12 minutes, the United States Air Force nervously awaited the order to commence global annihilation.
Luckily for future generations, a B-52 that was already in the air happened to fly past one of the radar sites, noticed a distinct lack of smoking ruins and reported it in time to convince everyone to calm their shit down.
"I'm just gonna drop these bombs off before I come back, no sense letting 'em go to waste."
What actually happened? For some stupid reason, every single telephone line connecting NORAD, SAC headquarters and all the early warning radars, including the backup and civilian lines, ran through one single telephone relay station in Colorado. That night, a motor in the relay station had overheated, shutting down every possible line of communication between the nuclear bombers and the people who had to constantly tell them not to kill everyone.
Call us hippies, but we can't help thinking that "Kill everyone everywhere" should never be anyone's default.
But hey, these were technical errors, right? The machines were overruled by wise human operators. Level-headed, well-trained humans couldn't make a mistake that stupid, could they?
The Emergency Broadcast System, that voice on the radio that warns you about incoming tornadoes and stuff, was first created during the Cold War to warn American citizens of a Soviet nuclear strike so that they could take cover in their bomb shelters or dive under their school desks. Every Saturday, NORAD would test the system by sending a teletype message to every radio station in the United States to make sure it was working. Tests were routine, and no one paid much attention to them.
Until 9:33 a.m. Eastern on February 20, 1971, when lowly civilian teletype operator Wayland S. Eberhard grabbed the wrong tape and stuffed it into the alert system machine.
Instead of the message saying "This is only a test," NORAD sent out a chilling message to every radio station in America that said an emergency alert direct from the president was forthcoming.
To your average Cold War era American, there was only one reason why the president would interrupt the Partridge Family's latest hit with a nationwide emergency announcement, and it wasn't anything fun. According to DJ Bob Sievers of Fort Wayne, Indiana, "This meant one thing to me: The atomic bombs, the missiles, have left Russia, and they're on their way here."
Radio announcers around the country were compelled to broadcast confused and jittery announcements about a mystery emergency while deciding whether they should call home to say farewell to their loved ones. Another DJ at Fort Hood, Texas, who was also a soldier, said that he was stuck trying to decide whether to go back to base or "desert the military and spend the remaining few moments of the end of the world with my wife and 1-month-old daughter."
"Yep, love you and all that. Now lose the pants, because we're all gonna die."
The folks at NORAD realized their mistake almost immediately, but through their frantic scrambling to cancel the alert, they couldn't locate the correct code they needed to authenticate the message. So for about 45 minutes, the nation listened breathlessly for confirmation that the end was upon them.
Eventually, they sent out the correct cancel message and the country breathed a sigh of relief, or, in the words of one Virginia broadcaster, "We're considering billing NORAD for three sets of underwear."
And you also have to realize that the United States and Soviet Union were always obsessively monitoring each other for any sign of a nuclear surprise attack. One sign they looked for was a sudden civilian evacuation. If one country suddenly started putting its people in bomb shelters with no incoming attack, the obvious conclusion would be that they were about to launch an attack themselves and were getting their people to safety before the retaliation strike came in. And of course, if one side thought they were about to get nuked, the logical response would be to launch a pre-emptive strike while they still had the chance. So, if the panic had played out much longer, it would have looked to the Soviets like the USA was bracing itself for World War III, and their only choice would have been to try to quickly strike first.
Like that game where you try to slap someone's hand before they pull it away, only with missiles.