At 9 a.m. on November 9, 1979, a low-level Air Force officer sat down at a computer and booted up a training program that would simulate what would happen if the Soviets fired 1,000 nuclear missiles at America at the same time. You know, for kicks. Unfortunately, what he didn't know was that his computer was hooked up to the mainframe in the main NORAD control room. When he began the simulation, computers from NORAD to the Pentagon started reporting that every nuke in Russia was on a collision course with the USA. You may recognize this as the plot of WarGames.
According to Senator Charles Percy, who was touring the NORAD facility when it all went down, "All hell broke loose; they were absolutely convinced there were missiles coming at us."
"I'm afraid I'll have to sit here until one of you finds a fresh pair of pants."
Warnings went out to every missile silo in the United States informing the crews that the country was under nuclear attack and to prepare to launch. Fighter planes started taking off to shoot down the Soviet bombers that were probably headed their way. The president's airborne command center was readied for takeoff, but no one could find Jimmy Carter to put him on board. So his plane took off without him, presumably leaving the president to find a suitable hole in the ground to hide in.
Thankfully, the commander of NORAD decided it would be a good idea to double check that the crisis was real before they went ahead and destroyed the world. He called up radar stations to ask if they had seen anything. They reported back that there was nothing on radar and everything looked clear. Satellites that were designed to detect missile launches from anywhere in the world also reported that everything was clear. So, good thing the phones were working that day.
"That's probably enough brinkmanship for the day. Anyone else want to go out and do just all the drugs?"
On January 25, 1995, scientists in northern Norway launched a completely benign research rocket designed to study the aurora borealis. But even though the Cold War had been over for some years, Russians still collectively soiled themselves when their radar picked up something that looked almost identical to an American ballistic missile flying straight toward them.
"That's probably something terrible."
According to Russian policy, if such an attack were to be detected, President Boris Yeltsin had 10 minutes to decide whether to nuke the shit out of the United States. Like the U.S. president, Yeltsin carried a briefcase with nuclear doomsday codes inside. This was the first time that it had been opened.
In a sane world, it would have contained nothing but a scrap of paper with "Fucking No" scrawled across it.
The Russian president, sweat reeking of vodka trailing down his forehead, sat with his hands poised over the Big Red Button as the minutes ticked by, his aides presumably screaming into telephones around him.
Allegedly, Yeltsin had only a minute left to decide a course of action when the radar announced that the rocket had fallen into the ocean without killing anybody. It would be hours before they could figure out that the object had been a scientific test and not just a really ineffective nuclear missile.
"Never mind. It was just Ted Nugent shark hunting."
If you're wondering how the Americans would be so silly as to antagonize an already backed-into-the-corner nuclear power for the sake of studying some flashy sky colors, in actual fact the Americans were every bit as confused, considering that they had officially notified the Russians about the launch weeks earlier. Apparently, someone along the Russian chain of command forgot to tell the people who really, really needed to know about this stuff, such as the guys with their eyes glued to their radar and a briefcase full of launch codes.
The Cuban Missile Crisis would already have the dubious honor of being the closest the world has ever been to nuclear annihilation even without all the screw-ups. It was basically the scene at the end of Face/Off where everyone is pointing guns at everyone else and screaming, except that the guns were doomsday devices. The U.S. military went to DEFCON 2 (the second highest nuclear threat level) for the first time in its history. Things couldn't get any worse, right?
"We're also out of amyl nitrate? Goddamn, this day is just the worst."
Well, there was the event that occurred on October 25, 1962, when a guard at a U.S. air base spotted a shadowy figure attempting to scale the fences. Concerned that it might be a Soviet saboteur sent to mess up the American defenses, the guard activated the intruder alarms, which alerted nearby military bases to the potential threat. But at Volk Field in Wisconsin, the wrong alarm went off -- the one that signaled the beginning of World War III.
They go off as individual notes to play the Imperial Death March.
As nuclear bombers started to tear down the runway to deliver an apocalyptic payload onto Soviet soil, it came down to a single truck to flag down the planes by frantically flashing its lights. The "Soviet saboteur," by the way, turned out to be a curious bear.
The very next day, on October 26, Vandenberg Air Force Base in California launched a Titan II rocket out over the Pacific Ocean. You know, right toward Russia. Why? It was a scheduled test. Of course, when it was scheduled, the military had no idea that the Cuban Missile Crisis was going to break out. It occurred to nobody that this might not be a good idea under the circumstances.
"As per the test's instructions, we sent a message to them saying that it isn't a test at all, but a very real nuclear attack."
But that was just one incredibly stupid oversight, right? Actually, later that afternoon, a second freaking missile test occurred at Cape Canaveral, right at ground zero of the Cuban crisis. This time, even the other U.S. bases didn't know about it, so both the American and Soviet government suffered a terrifying few moments wondering whether the other had just lobbed a nuclear warhead and instigated war.
Holy shit. How are we still here?
For more ways we were this close to being annihilated, check out 7 Nuclear Weapon Screw-Ups You Won't Believe We Survive. Or learn about the 5 Ways The World Could End (You'd Never See Coming).
And stop by LinkSTORM to see how John Cheese is trying to destroy the planet.
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