Remember the 1983 movie WarGames? The film is about a computer “game” with the potential to start thermonuclear war. But strangely this scenario is more truth than fiction. Because in 1979 programmers at NORAD almost started World War III when they accidentally ran a computer simulation of a Soviet attack.
In the early morning hours of November 9, 1979 Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor to President Carter, was awakened by a horrifying phone call. According to NORAD, the Soviet Union had just launched 250 missiles headed straight for American soil. Brzenzinski received another call not long after the first, and NORAD was reporting that it was now 2,200 missiles. This was the moment that every American living through the Cold War had feared. And U.S. officials had no plans to notify the public.
Brzenzinski didn’t even bother waking up his wife. He assumed that he and everyone he knew would soon be dead, so there was no sense in troubling her. One can only imagine the dismal post-apocalyptic world flashing before his mind’s eye as he thought about his next steps.
“I knew that if it were true, then within about half an hour I, and my loved ones, and Washington, and the majority of America would cease to exist. I wanted to be sure that we’d have company,” Brzenzinski told a biographer in 2011.
What Brzenzinski meant was that he wanted to make sure if the attack was real that the Soviet Union would be little more than a giant hole in the ground. If we were going down, our Commie adversaries were going down with us.
But Brzenzinski wanted confirmation before calling the president and launching missiles at the Soviets. There had been other false alarms in the past, but this one looked legit. Thankfully, before he could notify President Carter he received a third call that no other warning systems had picked up signs of an attack. NORAD would continue to keep a close eye on the skies, but this appeared to be yet another false alarm.
So how did it happen? A computer program that simulated a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union had been fed through NORAD’s network. Terrifyingly, NORAD and everyone else in the network mistook their own drill program as a real attack.
1973 cutaway illustration of the Advanced Airborne Command Post (The National Security Archive)
Even though the president wasn’t notified in real time and only became aware of the incident later, events were set in motion to provide a second strike. Ten American and Canadian jets were scrambled in preparation for a war that had the potential to dramatically change life on our planet for many generations to come.
But the president wasn’t kept in the loop. The United States has a system in place dating back to the 1960s for these kinds of scenarios. The president is supposed to board a plane so that he can be able to make decisions from the air during a nuclear conflict. Curiously, that flight (a mobile command center called the National Emergency Airborne Command Post) reportedly took off without the president on board.
When the 1979 NORAD computer incident was first reported in the American press, the whole thing was downplayed as something that didn’t pose any real threat to American security. News reports of the time made it very clear that the president wasn’t notified (something that was supposed to soothe the public) but they failed to mention that Carter’s national security advisor had been informed and was sitting at home contemplating a retaliatory strike, not to mention the death of everyone he loved.
As Michael Warner explains in the absolutely fascinating 2012 paper Cybersecurity: A Pre-history, this incident would involve a bizarre cycle of art imitating life imitating art:
In a case of art imitating life, the popular thriller WarGames adapted this scenario in 1983 — and President Ronald Reagan was impressed enough by co-star Matthew Broderick’s hacking skills to mention the movie’s scenario at a meeting with members of Congress and the Army’s Chief of Staff. Lastly, in a case of life imitating art, high school students from Milwaukee, inspired by WarGames and calling themselves the 414s (after the city’s telephone area code), proved that same summer that high schoolers really could get inside unclassified military networks.
How did they try to remedy these particular problems in 1979? For one, NORAD built a $16 million test facility offsite so that they weren’t feeding simulation programs directly into their detection network. A 1981 report by the General Accounting Office cited this as absolutely necessary to make sure that a computer program couldn’t set off a false alarm again.
But both the U.S. and Soviet Union would see many more false alarms in the coming years. In fact, we know of at least three examples in 1980 alone. Another false alarm would occur in 1983 when a Soviet lieutenant in Moscow by the name of Stanislav Petrov received a warning that American ICBMs were headed towards Russia. His decision to not launch a counter attack based on a “funny feeling in [his] gut” saved humanity from absolute nuclear destruction.
Last year the Danish made a movie about Petrov called The Man Who Saved The World. Sadly, he was neither the first nor the last Cold Warrior to deserve that title.
Undated photo of satellite watchers in the Space Computational Center, NORAD Headquarters (The National Security Archive)