Atomic Footballs and Close Calls

There are a handful of moments in history that are defining, particularly because nothing happened.  When the Y2K didn’t turn every motherboard in the world into useless noodles, when the Mayan calendar’s end date didn’t mean the world ended, people love a good doomsday story.  What is oftentimes forgotten is how close the world has been to the brink on a handful of occasions.

This thing is the Doomsday Clock, it’s a symbolic representation of how close the world is to catastrophic failure.

For example, in 1983, Stanislav Petrov (The most Russian name possible after Boris Yeltsin) was working for the Soviet Union’s Air Defense system.  His job was to watch a radar system for anything that bleeped, sweeped, or creeped.  The Russians had just shot down an jet plane from South Korea that had slipped into Russian airspace and killed hundreds of passengers as well as an American senator; tensions between America and the Soviet Union were nearly at an all-time high.  One day, a little past midnight, the screen blared that the Americans had fired off 5 missiles.  Petrov’s job was to let his higher command know when the Americans attacked so they could retaliate.  Petrov credits his time as a civilian as to why he didn’t immediately tell his commander, and he tried to verify the attack.  It was odd that the Americans would only shoot off five missiles, a real attack would be hundreds of bombs at once, plus the radar satellite was known to be somewhat unreliable.  After a few minutes of frantically checking, Petrov concluded that the 5 missiles were in fact, a malfunction of the machines.  The Americans were not attacking.  There was no call to retaliate and shoot back.  Historians are still somewhat unsure as to whether or not a rapid report would have ended in a fiery cataclysmic nuclear war, but in 2004 Petrov was recognized for his role in “avoiding a global catastrophe.”

The natural question to ask is: “How can it possibly be that easy to start a nuclear war?  How could Petrov making one quick and terrified phone call have ended the world?”  The answer is in something called “Mutually Assured Destruction”, the idea that if the enemy fires enough missiles to blow up your entire infrastructure, you fire all of yours back at them before the bombs begin to drop just to make sure they are as crippled as you are.  The problem is that missiles move really fast.  The President of the United States or the Soviet Premier would need to have access to the big red button that fires the missiles at all times.  That’s exactly what they do too.  In the United States, we call it the “Atomic Football”, in Russia, it’s the “Cheget”.  A wee aluminum briefcase with a black leather package, the contents are largely unknown but weigh upwards of 45 pounds.  Based on the memoirs of the aides that carried the Atomic Football, there is a spiral notebook with a simplified list of all of the President’s options when he fires the missiles as well as a set of nuclear launch codes on a card called “the biscuit.”

The President’s biscuit does not look like this.  That said, the nuclear biscuit would undoubtedly taste better with butter.

The briefcase and President have been separated several times, sometimes in small ways when the Commander-in-Chief and his Secret Service purse carrier board different elevators (totally a no-no, the Pres. needs to be within sight of the football at all times), other times they get separated in big ways; for example, on one occasion the Football carrier accidentally left the briefcase at the airport and had a Secret Service member bring it to him by performing a high speed hand-off from a motorcycle to the motorcade car.  At other times, the President and his biscuit have been separated.  When Ronald Reagan was shot, the EMTs sliced his clothes off him and the card went missing for a period of time before they found it dumped in his shoe.  To reiterate, this card has the codes that you need to start World War III and wipe out a handful of countries.  Bill Clinton supposedly forgot his card somewhere, and simply did not tell anyone for a couple months much to the chagrin of his Chief of Staff.  In another case, Jimmy Carter was said to have left his biscuit in his jacket pocket when he sent the coat to the dry cleaner.

Even with all of the bunglings and complete foolishness that has happened from time to time with the President’s obscenely important pigskin, there are no stories about the Americans ever opening the briefcase with intention to use.  In Russia, on the other hand, there was a moment where the bombs almost went off.  A handful of American and Norwegian scientists were setting off a science-filled rocket in 1995, with the intention of getting some sort of new learning about the Aurora Borealis.  The missile went up, up, up, then sort of veered off into Russian airspace towards Moscow.  To understate the situation, the Russians freaked out.  The rocket looked, for all intents and purposes, like an American submarine missile.  Yeltsin had the codes out and entered into the Cheget, but as level heads prevailed, nothing was finalized.  Nobody talked about the Norwegian rocket for about a week, at which point it was casually noted on the evening news.  Once again, the world came within a whisker of becoming the Fallout franchise, and everyone happily went about their business.

“With great power comes great responsibility” has really never been the world’s way of dealing with Atomic weapons.  Dr.Strangelove is practically a documentary sometimes.