Armageddon Almost Not Averted

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The mental image we all have of a near-nuclear war scenario goes like this: A threat is detected; military men dutifully begin working their way through a crisp and precise set of protocols; maybe it even gets as far as the authorities ordering missile launch officers to break open those little squares of hard plastic we know from the movies, the ones that hold the launch codes.

But the threat is defused, or revealed to have been false -- and then everyone stands down from Armageddon in the same crisp, orderly fashion as they had ramped up for it.

It turns out that it's nothing like that.

Consider, for example, a fun Cold War-era fact from Bruce Blair, who is president of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information (home of Johnson's Russia List).

Blair was a Minuteman nuclear missile launch officer in the 1970s, and regularly ran through simulations in which he and his colleagues launched up to 50 missiles at the Soviet Union.

To launch a Minuteman in those days, one had to "unlock" the missile by dialing in a code -- the equivalent of a safety catch on a handgun. However, Blair reports, the U.S. Strategic Air Command was worried that a bunch of sissy safety features might slow things down. It ordered all locks set to 00000000 -- and in launch checklists, reminded all launch officers like Blair to keep the codes there. "So the 'secret unlock code' during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War," Blair says, "remained constant at 00000000."

Blair recently buttonholed Robert McNamara, the former U.S. defense secretary best known for overseeing the escalation of our war in Vietnam.

It was McNamara who ordered that safety locks be put on Minuteman missiles, and he spoke with great pride of this as a reform crucial to preventing accidental nuclear war. So when Blair told him the code was fixed at a line of zeros, he flipped.

"I am shocked, absolutely shocked and outraged," McNamara said. "Who the hell authorized that?"

Hmmm. Now, how could anybody be shocked -- shocked! -- to find we weren't in control of our nuclear arsenals?

Over the decades we've lived with thousands of hair-trigger-launch nukes, there have been four major false alarms (that we know of): in 1979 and 1980 (both American false alarms), in 1983 (a Soviet false alarm) and in 1995 (a Russian false alarm).

And yet the United States and Russia in 2004 -- just as in the 1970s, '80s and '90s -- still have thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at each other and poised to be launched in minutes.

Candidate-for-president George W. Bush back in 2000 talked about de-alerting the U.S. missile fleet -- reducing the launch protocols from mere minutes to hours or even days. Sadly for us, he dropped that once in office.

And so we are left to be protected by the ad-hoc freelancing of men like Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who was honored on Friday in Moscow by a relatively obscure American peace group. Why? Because he did not do his job -- and, frankly, for no real good reason.

Nineteen-eighty-three was, in retrospect, a terrifying year. Ronald Reagan was pushing a nuclear buildup, talking about "winnable" nuclear wars and a "Star Wars" missile defense shield, and putting missiles in Europe; the Soviets were responding with the "dead hand" nuclear launch system and other grim moves to counter a surprise attack.

In June of that year, we had the idiocy of the "Farewell Dossier" -- a recently revealed Cold War episode in which the Reagan team engineered a massive explosion at a Siberian pipeline (one that reportedly had startled U.S. war planners thinking a nuclear exchange was under way). In August, the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines 007, killing all 269 people on board.

Weeks later, on September 26, 1983, at a half-hour past midnight, Petrov was watching horrified as a warning system he had helped create reported five U.S. missiles launched and headed toward Soviet territory.

Blair says this was the closest we've ever come to accidental nuclear war. "By all rights we should have blown ourselves to bits by now, but good luck and good judgment up and down the chain of command have spared us this fate ... so far."

All the data checked out; there was no sign of any glitch or error. Yet Petrov says, "I just couldn't believe that just like that, all of a sudden, someone would hurl five missiles at us." And: "I imagined if I'd assume the responsibility for unleashing the Third World War -- and I said, 'No, I wouldn't.'"

Petrov declared it to be a false alarm -- not because he had any evidence of that, but because he wanted it to be false.

And then, he says, "I drank half a liter of vodka as if it were only a glass and slept for 28 hours." Which is what I feel like doing every time I'm confronted with our complacence about this system we've built.

Matt Bivens is a former editor of The Moscow Times.