The incident came at the height of the Cold War, as the US and Soviet Union jostled to become the ultimate global superpower. On November 9, 1979, a computer error at the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) headquarters caused an alarm and full preparation for a large-scale nuclear attack from the USSR. It led to national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski being awoken at 3AM to the news that 2,200 ballistic missiles were on their way.
It was a false alarm, but Brzezinski was not to know that and any form of retaliation would have been enough to start a real nuclear war thanks to Mutually Assured Destruction.
Lance Geiger, a history researcher and the man behind “The History Guy” on YouTube revealed the sobering details on his channel.
He said in 2018: “In the early morning of November 9, 1979, in the world’s most advanced bunker, using the brand-new and robust early warning system, the unthinkable happened.
“Decades of strategy around massive retaliation, Mutually Assured Destruction collapsed as the screens at the NORAD command centre showed indisputable that America’s worst nightmare had occurred.
A 3AM call stopped the White House launching an attack
The Cold War reached its height in the Eighties
The Soviet Union had launched an all-out nuclear attack on the US
“The Soviet Union had launched an all-out nuclear attack on the US, designed to destroy our command functions and our nuclear weapons.
“This was no drill, the Pentagon’s National Military Command Centre and the Alternate National Military Command Centre all showed the same thing – the Soviet’s had launched more than 200 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
“Following procedure, the launch control centres for America’s 550 Minuteman 3 and 450 Minuteman 2 missiles were given a preliminary warning to prepare for a counter-attack.”
Mr Geiger, 55, went on to detail the chain of events that followed.
He added: “The crews of the SAC-ready alert bombers were moved to their aircraft emerging from their mole holes to man their B-52 bombers and started their engines.
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Lance Geiger revealed all on his channel
“The entire Continental Air Defence interceptor force, fighter aircrafts tasked to defend the US, was put on alert and at least 10 F-106 Delta Dart fighter interceptors were launched to protect US airspace.
“Finally, the President’s Doomsday Plane, the national emergency airborne command post, was launched without the President or Secretary of Defence on board.
“US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was woken at 3AM by a call from his military assistant Major General William Odom, who informed him that 250 Soviet ballistic missiles were headed to the US.
“Brzezinski knew that the President’s decision time to order a retaliation was just three to seven minutes and they were still waiting for satellite confirmation.
“A moment later, Odom called again to tell him that the Soviets had now launched 2,200 missiles – an all-out nuclear attack.”
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Brzezinski kept a cool head
The computers had made an error
But, Brzezinski somehow kept a cool head and though before ordering a retaliation.
That bought enough time for a third phone call.
Mr Geiger said: “As Brzezinski prepared to call the President, he made a silent decision of his own, he chose not to wake his wife.
“If the world was going to end in half an hour, he would let her go quietly.
“Moments later, Odom called for a third time, data from the early-warning satellites were seeing nothing, it was a false alarm.
“Later it was determined that software simulating a nuclear attack, intended to test the new system, had inexplicably been transferred into the regular warning display.
Leonid Brezhnev was wary of the US
As all command centres were linked, they were all showing the same thing.”
Unfortunately, the mistake was not the last of its kind, as a computer glitch at NORAD caused three more false alarms a year later.
By May 1981, Soviet fears had reached an all-time high as General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and KGB chairman Yuri Andropov bluntly announced that the US was preparing a secret nuclear attack on the USSR.
Andropov revealed the KGB would begin Operation RYaN (Nuclear Missile Attack) – the largest, most comprehensive intelligence operation in Soviet history.
Consequently, mass paranoia set in among Soviet leaders regarding the US plans, as memories of Nazi Germany's surprise invasion of the USSR still haunted them.
Ronald Reagan added fuel to the fire
Tensions stopped in 1991
These fears were not helped by the actions and rhetoric of newly-elected US President Ronald Reagan.
He announced a new medium-range nuclear missile to be introduced into Europe – Pershing II – which could reach the Soviet Union from West Germany in six minutes.
On March 8, 1983, Reagan brandished the Soviet Union an “evil empire” during a press conference, sparking fury in the Kremlin, who became obsessed Reagan was attempting to smear the communist ideology.
The timing of NATO’s yearly Able Archer exercise could not have come at a worse time for the USSR.
In November, Able Archer 83, an exercise to simulate nuclear war, was carried out by NATO forces.
While it was simply a communications test, paranoid Soviet agents believed this was exactly how the US would mask a real attack.
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The operation introduced several new elements not seen in previous years, including a new unique format of coded communication, radio silences, and the participation of heads of government.
It also simulated a move through all alert phases, from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1, which KGB agents wrongly assumed to be a real move into the highest nuclear threat.
The Soviet politburo believed their only chance of surviving a NATO strike was to preempt it, and so readied its nuclear arsenal.
Days later, on November 11, 1983, Soviet fears were completely ended upon learning the Able Archer exercise had finished thanks to double agent Oleg Gordievsky.
Many historians including Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, and Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, have since argued that Able Archer 83 was one of the times when the world has come closest to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.