Editor’s note: A list of sources for this story is available online.
It was around midnight on Oct. 25, 1962, when a black bear climbed a fence in Duluth and almost started a nuclear war.
The Cuban missile crisis was in its most tense stage. President John F. Kennedy’s negotiations with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev seemed to be going nowhere. The U.S. military sat on a nuclear stockpile with the combined power of 42,000 Hiroshima bombs. And DEFCON 3 had just been declared for the first time.
Following the awful, Strangelovian logic of nuclear war, both sides were willing to wage total war at a moment’s notice. Safeguards against accidental disaster were about to be tested.
U.S. officers had been trained that, preceding a nuclear first-strike, Soviet special forces — “spetznaz” — would carry out sabotage operations against U.S. command facilities.
So when an Air Force guard saw a dark, shadowy shape ascending the security fence of the Duluth Sector Direction Center, he took it for a “Russian spetznaz saboteur,” according to a declassified Air Defense Command history.
His blood chilled by Cold War jitters, the patrolman fired on the bear.
The shots triggered a sabotage alarm, which was connected to alarm systems at several other military bases. At Volk Field in Wisconsin, the automatic system malfunctioned and the wrong alarm — a Klaxon — rang out across the air base.
Two squadrons of F-106A fighter jets scrambled to their launch sites. Stowed in the belly of each plane, along with four conventional air-to-air missiles, was a single 800-pound, nuclear-tipped rocket.
The pilots thought nuclear war had already begun.
It turned out all right in the end — just before the jets took off, an officer sped toward the tarmac, flashing his car’s headlights and stopping the launch — but the incident points toward a long history of atomic close calls.
A solar flare, a flock of swans, a power outage and a moonrise over Norway have all been misinterpreted as evidence of an imminent nuclear attack.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1980, a maintenance worker dropped a 9-pound socket wrench 70 feet, puncturing the fuel tank of a thermonuclear Titan II missile and setting off an explosion that propelled the 9-megaton warhead out of its underground bunker and into a ditch two football fields away. Somehow, the bomb didn’t detonate.
The missile alert mistakenly sent to Hawaii residents in January 2018 was yet another frightening affirmation of Murphy’s Law — that notorious dictum stating that what can go wrong will go wrong. It’s all dark comedy until it isn’t, and the risk that human error could usher in the apocalypse remains enormous.
- What Was at Stake in 1962?
- False alarm: How a bear nearly started a nuclear war
- “The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons” by Scott Douglas Sagan