Cold War

Anyone who’s learned about the Cold War will be familiar with the chilling fact (no pun intended…) that we came very close to a nuclear war.

But after reading things like this article, mixed with other anecdotes, I’m left wondering how on Earth we didn’t go to war… Accidentally. Both the U.S. and the Soviets, on multiple occasions, “detected” launches of nuclear weapons by the other, and came within seconds of retaliation before someone noticed something out of the ordinary.

Fortunately, the U.S. was very thorough the first time around, and quickly proved that the first “attack” they witnessed was caused by some guy inserting the wrong tape… In the case of the Soviets, the only reason they didn’t launch a counter-attack after their own false alert, it seems, was because the guy who was supposed to press the button disobeyed orders and went with his gut. (And boy are we glad!)

And there’s a further set of coincidences, really. After a flood of nonsensical data, officials discovered some problems. Apparently, one detection system was alternating between reporting some 2,000 incoming missiles and 0 incoming missiles. Because of the conflicting data, they turned to alternate systems, which also reported 0 incoming missiles, and it was traced to a hardware malfunction, with the 2,000 number just happening to match, by sheer luck (or lack thereof), internal checksums.

So they wrote some code to compare results from multiple systems. And not more than a few months later, the problem with the training tape occurred, when one of the systems began reporting more believable numbers of incoming missiles. (Apparently, a steadily increasing number.) The data “made sense,” but, because of the newly-implemented code to compare with other systems, they realized that it was just one system, and quickly isolated it to a case of someone sending “training data” as if it were live data. It’s almost a case of two wrongs making a right–had the first error not occurred, the safeguards wouldn’t have been implemented to catch the second error.

Oh, and there exists a slightly-creepy website dedicated to the Russian who decided to trust his gut over the myriad indications that we were attacking

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