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Nuclear false alarm in 1979 could have led to catastrophe

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, received a dreaded 3 a.m. phone call, reporting the U.S. was under nuclear attack. (Source: CNN) Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, received a dreaded 3 a.m. phone call, reporting the U.S. was under nuclear attack. (Source: CNN)

(RNN) - Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, died Friday. Not among the accomplishments listed in obituaries over the weekend: Being on the receiving end of a 3 a.m. phone call that could have led to a U.S. nuclear strike. 

Though some details of the error reached the media, the true enormity of the events were largely kept out of the public eye, such as the call to Brzezinski, the National Security Archive of George Washington University said.

In his interview with Politico in 2013, Brzezinski said the dreaded call happened in the wee hours of Nov. 19, 1979. However, another account lists the date as Nov. 9, 1979.

In any case, one of Brzezinski's subordinates told him the Soviets launched 220 missiles against the U.S.

"When I picked up the phone, I could hear him say: 'Sorry, sir. We are under nuclear attack.' That kind of wakes you up. I said, 'Yes? Tell me,' and he says, 'Thirty seconds ago, 200 Soviet missiles have been fired at the United States,'” Brzezinski told Politico.

The Strategic Air Command launched 10 fighters in response, the National Security Archive said. Also the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, a plane used so the president could control U.S. forces during a nuclear war, flew from Andrews Air Force Base, though neither the president nor secretary of defense were aboard. 

Brzezinski awaited confirmation before calling Carter to discuss a retaliatory attack.

"According to the rules, I had two more minutes to verify this information and then an additional four minutes to wake up the president, go over the options in the so-called football, get the president’s decision and then initiate the response," Brzezinski said.

A second confirmation said that even more missiles were on their way to the U.S.: 2,200. 

"It was a strange feeling because I’m not some gung-ho hero, physically," Brzezinski said. "When I would fly into turbulence, for example, I’d be very nervous. This time I was totally calm. Somehow or another, I knew everybody would be dead in 28 minutes — my wife, my kids, everybody else. If that was the case, I was going to make sure we had lots of company." 

However, a third check of the information revealed that no attack had been launched.

"One minute before Brzezinski intended to call the president, [military assistant William] Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour," former secretary of defense Robert M. Gates wrote in his book, "From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How they Won the Cold War."

A malfunction caused the screens at Strategic Air Command headquarters and the National Military Command Center to display information showing the launch of a major attack. It turned out that someone had played a training tape inadvertently.

It wasn't the only false alarm to happen during the 1979 and 1980 timeframe.

False alerts occurred on May 28, June 3 and June 6, 1980, all blamed on the failure of a 46-cent chip, which caused a computer to make typographical errors that gave the false information that the Soviet Union had started a nuclear attack.

Experts found these false alarms to be particularly frightening, considering the speed at which the president has to make a decision about whether an attack is real and what response to make - 10 minutes, perhaps more.

Discussing the November 1979 incident, a senior State Department adviser Marshal Shulman wrote that "false alerts of this kind are not a rare occurrence" and that there is a "complacency about handling them that disturbs me," per the National Security Archive. 

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