A Nuclear Near Miss In ’67

We’ve all heard about the Cuban Missile Crisis — the tense standoff in October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union seemed on the brink of nuclear war over Soviet missiles based in Cuba.

It turns out that there was another very close call during those terrible Cold War days, when kids were trained to duck and cover, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. kept nuclear aircraft in the air at all times, ready to respond to any attack, and nuclear annihilation seemed an ever-present threat.  This particular near-miss happened in 1967 and hasn’t gotten any attention because everything occurred behind the scenes.  It hasn’t been given a catchy, alliterative name like “Cuban Missile Crisis,” either.

sun-big-solar-flare-100910-02Let’s call it the Solar Flare-up of ’67.

It happened on May 23, 1967.  The sun emitted a solar flare so powerful that it knocked out the three U.S. Air Force’ ballistic missile Early Warning System radar sites in the northern hemisphere.  The sites appeared to be jammed — which in those days was considered an act of war because it would be the first step in launching a preemptive nuclear strike.  Reasoning that the Soviets were behind the jamming, Air Force personnel began readying the American nuclear arsenal for a countdown to a strike, too.

At that point, fortunately, scientists and solar forecasters working at the North American Aerospace Defense Command figured out that the huge solar flare, and not the Russians, were responsible for the jamming.  The news went up the command chain, and the American forces stood down.  And, since the Soviet defense systems were presumably similarly affected by the solar flare, a similar scenario played out somewhere on the Russian side of the Iron Curtain.

The Solar Flare-up of ’67 just reaffirms how improbable it was that the world made it through the hair-trigger period of the Cold War.  If relations were on a hair-trigger basis such that even solar flares could plausibly spark a nuclear exchange, it’s amazing that some miscommunication or misguided leader didn’t send the world on the path to a radioactive holocaust.

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