Close Calls – Mishaps That Nearly Led To Nuclear War

How close has the world come to nuclear war? Find out below.

“A number of emergencies, communication errors and computer glitches have very nearly precipitated nuclear war.”

ON MORE THAN one occasion over the past 50 years, the world’s super powers have nearly ended all life on this planet. Besides the well-studied Cuban Missile Crisis, there have been a number of lesser known emergencies, communication errors and computer glitches that have very nearly precipitated nuclear war: either small regional exchanges or full on global armageddon. Here are a few of the scarier of these incidents:

A NORAD computer glitch caused a brief panic for American defences.

Fatal Error!

A buggy hard drive deep in the bowels of NORAD headquarters nearly spoofed the United States into launching a full nuclear retaliatory strike on what turned out to be an entirely bogus Soviet sneak attack. Just before 9 a.m. local time, on Nov. 9, 1979,  computer displays at the Cheyenne, Colorado Mountain Complex, as well as the Pentagon, Strategic Air Command and the National Military Command Center, began displaying what appeared to be hundreds of ICBMs lifting off from silos across the Soviet Union and heading towards targets in the continental United States. Eyewitnesses to the incident described personnel at NORAD as being in a state of “absolute panic” as the phoney attack unfolded. To make matters worse, commanders were unable to determine the president’s whereabouts throughout the emergency. [1] Within minutes, SAC aircraft were launched and even the National Airborne Command Center was sent aloft (although without the nation’s commander-in-chief aboard). At the same time, silos across the United States began preparations to release their missiles, while orders were issued to ballistic missile subs worldwide to come to launch depth. The fracas lasted for a full six minutes and was only averted when NATO spy satellites revealed that Soviet airspace was entirely devoid telltale missile exhaust signatures that would be generated from a massive launch. Long range radar installations in Greenland, Great Britain and Alaska were also unable to detect any missiles in the air further suggesting that the suspected attack was more likely a computer glitch. American forces were gradually recalled. In the weeks following the crisis, Congress grilled Pentagon brass not only about the computer error, but as to why the military was unable to reach the president for the duration of the emergency. Legislators also demanded to know why no one had attempted to use the famous “hot line” to Moscow. A similar computer glitch threw American missile command into frenzy again eight months later as computer terminals throughout NORAD once again reported a number of inbound Soviet ICBMs. On this occasion, the missile counts on military computers fluctuated wildly, suggesting an error. It was still enough to prompt America to briefly increase readiness.

A Soviet ICBM in Red Square.

Go Ahead, Make My Day!

Ten years earlier, it was the Soviets premier’s finger that was on the button. According to a 2010 article in the British newspaper, The Daily Mail, this close call was precipitated by a rapidly escalating border clash between China and the U.S.S.R. in October of 1969. As the shooting match along the Sino-Soviet frontier worsened, the Kremlin contemplated a series of nuclear strikes against a full gamut of targets inside the People’s Republic. In order to avert a panic in Washington at the prospect of Russian missiles in the air, Soviet diplomats informed the White House of Moscow’s intention to strike China. The U.S. responded with a stern warning: Use nukes on China, the Nixon Administration threatened, and America would attack 130 cities in the Soviet Union. The Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev blinked and instead opted for a diplomatic solution to its showdown with China. For more about this crisis, click here.

Pakistan Air Force F-16s were loaded with nuclear weapons during a 1990 confrontation with India. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Nuclear Showdown on the Sub-Continent

American diplomatic intervention would again avert disaster, although in this case it would be a regional nuclear confrontation involving long-time foes India and Pakistan. According to a landmark New Yorker article from 1993 by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, a massive build up of Indian troops along border of the disputed Kashmir region in 1990 precipitated the crisis. Pakistani, caught off guard by the suddenness with which the Indian army had appeared on its frontier, prepared to launch a nuclear strike on the enemy capital. The article, entitled “On the Nuclear Edge,” describes how American intelligence watched in real-time via spy satellites as the Pakistani military transported what looked like atom bombs from a suspected nuclear weapons facility to a nearby airport. Washington looked on with growing alarm as the highways connecting the two sites were ominously closed to all traffic and the airport was locked down as Pakistani technicians began fitting the mysterious payloads onto a squadron of F-16 fighter bombers. The White House hit the panic button and sent then National Security Adviser Robert Gates to warn the Pakistan to step back from the brink, while urging India to stay its forces on the border (if they both knew what was good for them.) Both Islamabad and Delhi relented in the face of American pressure both sides stood down. Gates admitted in the article that the crisis came perilously close to touching off a war. “Pakistan and India seemed to be caught in a cycle that they couldn’t break out of,” Gates says in the New Yorker piece. “I was convinced that if a war started, it would be nuclear.” Others were even more stark in their assessment. “It was the most dangerous nuclear situation we have ever faced since I’ve been in the U.S. government,” one official told Hersh. “It may be as close as we’ve come to a nuclear exchange. It was far more frightening than the Cuban Missile Crisis.” The full text of the famous article is available here.

Russian air defences thought this Arctic research rocket was an incoming nuke and prepared a retaliation against the U.S. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Black Brant Scare

More recently, a joint U.S. Norwegian research project to study the aurora borealis or “northern lights” almost led to World War Three in 1995. On Jan. 25 of that year, a team of civilian scientists launched the Black Brant XII four-stage sounding rocket from the Andøya Launch Range off the Norwegian coast. On its way into orbit, the projectile was picked up by Russian air defences, which mistook it for a U.S. submarine launched Trident missile heading towards their airspace. Moscow put its nuclear forces on a war footing and sought orders from President Boris Yeltsin to launch a retaliatory strike on the United States. Within minutes, Russian radar operators reported that the missile had splashed down off Spitsbergen and the alert was cancelled. The incident remains the only known instance in which a presidential nuclear launch briefcase, or ‘football’ as it’s known in the U.S., has been activated.


The U.S. planned a massive first strike against both China and the Soviet Union.

Furtherance: The Plan That Went Too Far

And finally, just recently, the National Security Archive of the United States released details of a top secret American plan to launch an all-out nuclear attack on both the Soviet Union and China in the event of any attack on American soil. The plan, which was ominously codenamed Furtherance, called for a strike on both of the communist powers, even if only one of them initiated an attack, and even if that attack was limited and non-nuclear in nature. Details of the strategy were made public in late 2012 as part of a release of an October, 1968 Oval Office meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and his national security team. The minutes show how the administration concluded that Furtherance, which had been on the books for years at that point, needed some serious rethinking. The members of the group unanimously agreed that any American response to an attack should be proportional in scope and only target the state that initiated it. To read details about Furtherance or to review the 1968 meeting notes themselves, click here.


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16 comments for “Close Calls – Mishaps That Nearly Led To Nuclear War

  1. Jay Crawford
    17 December, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Back in the days of a Cold War presided over by men with a World War II mindset, a total war to KILL your enemies was conceivable by American leaders, not just our totalitarian enemies. Check out the hammer of annihilation that SAC CinC Gen. Thomas Power* held ready to obliterate the Soviet Union:

    (Also note the 120 megatons (twelve 30mile prompt-death circles) which were aimed at Cuba.)

    And while the Soviets had a strong nuclear threat ON PAPER, their actual DELIVERABLE power was only a fraction of that because of the unreliability of Soviet 1st Generation ICBMs and the similar reliability and penetration issues of Soviet bombers flying into a 1000-plane NORAD defense.

    Yet, though the US would surely have been crippled (with millions of Americans dead) and the Soviet Union OBLITERATED, the vast ecological damage would have been the major destroyer of our planet. If you’ve ever read the highly-political TTAPS (“Nuclear Winter”) study in the 1980s, you’ll recognize the outdated-by-revised-strategy assumptions of Turco, Toon, Ackerman, Pollack, & Sagan as being based on this idea of a 10,000 megaton-equivalent nuclear exchange.
    While actual observation of sky-darkening from the California wildfires in the late 1980s cast doubt on many of the assumptions of the TTAPS scientists and the radiation plume from Chernobyl showed that low-level radiation is not automatically catastrophic to life, there can be no doubt that a vast, burning Soviet Union would have been a precursor to unprecedented tragedy, even by East Asian standards.

    *Note: The Cuban Missile Crisis’ peaceful resolution may have been substantially HELPED by Gen. Power in unauthorized radio transmission accompanying the declaration of DEFCON-2:
    “This is General Power speaking. I am addressing you for the purpose of reemphasizing the seriousness of the situation the nation faces. We are in an advanced state of readiness to meet any emergencies, and I feel that we are well prepared. I expect each of you to maintain strict security and use calm judgement during this tense period. Our plans are well prepared and are being executed smoothly. If there are any questions concerning instructions which by the nature of the situation deviates from the normal, use the telephone for clarification. Review your plans for further action to insure that there will be no mistakes or confusion. I expect you to cut out all nonessentials and put yourself in a maximum readiness condition. If you are not sure what you should do in any situation, and if time permits, get in touch with us here.”

    This unprecedented decision to broadcast (UNCODED and in his own voice!) the alert to all SAC forces was an intimidation move that the Soviets heard and understood…but his message’s point of calm alertness and POSITIVE CONTROL by headquarters was also something the Soviets understood. The latter seemed intended to reassure everyone that there was no “hair trigger” which could accidentally implement a strike and, hence, general war.

  2. 19 December, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Hello again. Can you please delete my initial comment? There appears to be a computer glitch in my WordPress software. No pun intended, seriously. 🙂

  3. 19 December, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Thanks. Still can’t figure out why the name came out so oddly… but to ask again, I’d be curious to learn what the true cause of the “glitch” was in your first example. Scary stuff, though.

    • 19 December, 2012 at 7:21 pm

      I didn’t even read the first one. I saw both messages at the same time and just dumped the first one as soon as you asked.

      • 19 December, 2012 at 7:27 pm

        But would you know what the reason was for the computer hiccup in your first example (in your blog) that almost led to the release of nukes? Sorry if I wasn’t clear. 🙂

        • 19 December, 2012 at 7:30 pm

          Ah… my bad! I believe it was that it a faulty drive that began running an attack simulation.

  4. Jay Crawford
    19 December, 2012 at 9:17 pm


    • 19 December, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?

      • Kayle
        23 December, 2012 at 10:38 am

        No. I want to play Global Thermonuclear War.

  5. Jay Crawford
    19 December, 2012 at 10:54 pm


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