Thursday, January 17, 2008

Contrary to Political Myth, How Ronald Reagan Almost Lost the Cold War

#1 on a list of 10 worst IT disasters of all time:
The threat of computers purposefully starting World War III is still the stuff of science fiction, but accidental software glitches have brought us worryingly close in the past. Although there are numerous alleged events of this ilk, the secrecy around military systems makes it hard to sort the urban myths from the real incidents.

However, one example that is well recorded happened back in 1983, and was the direct result of a software bug in the Soviet early warning system. The Russians' system told them that the US had launched five ballistic missiles. However, the duty officer for the system, one Lt Col Stanislav Petrov, claims he had a "...funny feeling in my gut", and reasoned if the US was really attacking they would launch more than five missiles.

The trigger for the near apocalyptic disaster was traced to a fault in software that was supposed to filter out false missile detections caused by satellites picking up sunlight reflections off cloud-tops.
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), a late Cold War approach to engaging the USSR, almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and this was one of those inadvertent hazards that Nuclear Freeze proponents warned people about in the mid-80's.


  1. You are a frequent critic of publications, The City Paper comes to mind, that produce bold headlines with often tenuous relation to the actual facts. Yet you produce a heading proclaiming” Contrary to Political Myth, How Ronald Reagan Almost Lost the Cold War" that attempts to attribute blame to former President Reagan for both a computer error that almost started a nuclear war and MAD by stating it was a “a late Cold War approach to engaging the USSR”.

    Did you read your own posting? The computer error was on the Russian side. Did President Reagan write their code? And the MAD doctrine became national policy with the arrival of the ballistic submarine in 1959 giving us the ability to retaliate after an initial surprise nuclear attack.

    Methinks your animosity toward Reagan maybe colored thoughts…

    BTW how did those nuclear-freeze advocates make-out? Did they accomplish anything besides some good musical compilations a’la Greenpeace?


  2. The reference to Reagan in the title is actually a throw-away reference. I put it in there because he has such a cult of personality that I figured it would draw a response, which is always fun. The post is more about how close we came and how many in the nuclear freeze movement were not only correct about the lack of stability of MAD (the fact that it came down to he arbitrary decision of one Soviet officer is horrible), but also through the nuclear freeze link how they were influencial in causing hawks like Richard Perle to come up w/the "zero option" to steal their fire (you could probably say the same of the later Star Wars Missile Defense proposals).

    Back to the title: I deliberately worded it to have interpretive ambiguity. One can either lose a contest actively, as in blowing it or failing in action, or one can lose, passively, simply by failing to win, which can be quite out of one's control.

    If that Soviet officer had responded as protocol probably dictated, by launching nuclear warheads at the US, NORAD probably would have responded at least in kind, perhaps disproportionately more, which would have called for further USSR launches if they hadn't launched every payload "preemptively" after spotting the initial 5 bogeys.

    Well, in a matter of hours there would have been nothing left but rubble to target on American soil and very little left to save for a 1990s "peace dividend." In that realistic case, Ronald Reagan would have lost the Cold War simply because there would have been nothing left to save. And he had no control over the loss, just as you say. The Cold War would have ended in flames and in Mutually Assured Defeat, and more than likely eventual human extinction. The cock roaches would have won the Cold War and inherited the earth.

    To think that such survival rested in the hands of a Soviet officer is rather ironic in the light of the grand narratives we hear from Reagan devotees who attribute our coming out on the other side of the Cold War to Reagan (not entirely true even in the active sense, since several Presidents between WWII and the break-up of the USSR also played parts), who almost lost everything in 1983, including the chance at a post-Cold War grand narrative.