How the US almost accidentally launched a nuclear attack on the USSR
July 5, 2023 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Several years ago I read an article about an episode in which the US almost launched a nuclear first strike on the USSR. I may have read it on Metafilter. A single person, stationed in the western Pacific (maybe near Japan?) was mistakenly sent the launch command. He asked repeatedly for confirmation, and was repeatedly told, "don't bother me, just do what you're told." He did not launch the strike, and was eventually able to get his contact to realize it was a mistake.

This was written up in an obscure journal, about history, or risk, or something. I remember being struck by how terrifying it was, and also strange that it didn't appear to be widely known. Does anyone know what this was? I would like to find it again, to share with someone who is currently studying international relations and nuclear strategy.
posted by alms to Law & Government (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Might you be thinking of Stanislav Petrov? He was a Soviet officer ordered to launch on the US, as opposed to the other way around, but every other bit of your question tracks.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:51 PM on July 5 [12 favorites]

The linked article is based primarily on an interview with Petrov; here's a broader overview that mentions a couple of other cases where some Soviets believed they were under nuclear attack and could have launched a counterattack. (Spoiler alert: They didn't.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:01 PM on July 5

This sounds similar:
28 October 1962

Before dawn a mistaken order was issued by Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to nuclear missile sites in Okinawa to launch all their nuclear missiles. None were launched. A team responsible for four missiles at Bolo Airfield in Yomitan reported that the order's codes were in order, but the local officer in charge did not trust the order, partly because only one of their four missiles was targeted on Russia, and he saw no logic why missiles would be launched against China too, and because readiness was at DEFCON 2, not DEFCON 1.[22]
From the List of Nuclear Close Calls.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:02 PM on July 5 [5 favorites]

(If you enjoyed this near-apocalypse, make sure not to miss the book "Command and Control" by Eric Schlosser...and never sleep again!)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:05 PM on July 5 [6 favorites]

Eric Schlosser's excellent book Command and Control talks about some of these, though it's been a while since I read it and I don't remember whether something like what you describe is among the stories.

Here's an interview with him.

If you read about it on MetaFilter, it might've been this post.

On preview, what wenestvedt said.
posted by box at 1:08 PM on July 5 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: It is definitely not Petrov. It was an American. I think it was the incident in Okinawa in 1962 that EndsOfInvention quoted. I'll explore the links and see if I can find the full description that I read previously.
posted by alms at 1:13 PM on July 5 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There was also this post.
posted by Etrigan at 1:19 PM on July 5 [2 favorites]

Don't know the answer to your question, but you may appreciate the film Fail Safe (don't watch the trailer, it's terrible), which is also based on an excellent book.
posted by dobbs at 1:25 PM on July 5 [1 favorite]

And of course, Dr Strangelove was originally an adaptation of Fail Safe.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:29 PM on July 5 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Etrigan found it.

The link from that post to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is broken, but I found the article by searching their website. It is titled, The Okinawa missiles of October . Interestingly, it is now preceded by the following caveat:
A post-publication note: On December 23, 2015, Stars and Stripes, a newspaper and website focused on US military news, published an article in which several Air Force missileers dispute the unconfirmed account that is the focus of this opinion piece. Their views should be taken seriously; they are substantive and raise significant questions that readers should consider when assessing former Air Force airman John Bordne's claim that he witnessed a near-launch of nuclear missiles on Okinawa during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bordne recently said that he stands by his account.

The Stars and Stripes article, "A nuclear tale: Cold War missileers refute Okinawa near-launch," can be found here.

The National Security Archive at George Washington University has asked the Air Force for historical records on the Okinawa missile units at the center of Bordne's account. It can take years for such requests to be fulfilled, archive senior analyst William Burr has told me. I hope the Air Force will consider expediting Burr's request.

The Bulletin is committed to accuracy and welcomes information on this matter from any source. Those who feel they have relevant information can email me at:

—John Mecklin, editor-in-chief
Thank you all for helping tracking down this story.
posted by alms at 5:59 PM on July 5 [4 favorites]

Damn, that's some good MetaFiltering.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:59 PM on July 5 [3 favorites]

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