On September 25, 1961, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, President John F. Kennedy gave an impassioned speech on the dangers of countries wielding nuclear arsenals. With these bold words he unknowingly foreshadowed an incident that led to the arming of Russia’s nuclear football for the first and only known time decades in the future:
Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.
Enter Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin. Thirty years after JFK’s warning to the world, the defunct USSR was now the Russian Federation. Along with the change of name came the nation’s first elected president. Yeltsin was a dichotomous man: He ushered in a new era of Western acceptance to the motherland, agreed to reductions in nuclear weapons, and disbanded the Communist-controlled parliament. However, he also showed he was a ruthless politician in his own way, by shelling that same parliamentary building when supporters of the Communist party seized it, entering a war in Chechnya that left tens of thousands dead, and stifling several impeachment attempts during his tenure. Needless to say, Yeltsin was basically Russia incarnate: a man with the mentality of superiority blazing his own trail and doing whatever he thinks is best, for better or worse.
1995 was a difficult year for President Yeltsin. He suffered two heart attacks and was hospitalized for weeks or more at a time. These episodes weren’t enough to take Yeltsin from this Earth, but something else occurred that year which might have been enough to make all of us lose our permanent residency in the land of the living. It’s likely we would never have recovered from an otherwise normal winter’s night in January 1995 had things gone to plan. That day was one when we realized once again that the fate of the world lies in the hands of a select few.
On January 25, Norwegian and American scientists had warned thirty countries (including Russia) that they were going to launch a Black Brant XII four-stage sounding rocket (a research rocket that collects atmospheric data) from the Andøya Rocket Range on the northwest coast of Norway. This rocket was designed to simply collect data on the aurora borealis, but it had the unfortunate aspect of looking like something much more menacing due to its trajectory over the North Pole. To Russia, it looked like this could have been a nuclear missile launched from a Minuteman-III silo in North Dakota. It is important to note that even though Moscow was informed of the launch and trajectory, that warning never got to the Olenegorsk radar station, which only saw an alarming blip on their screens.
At this point in history, both the United States and Russia had a “launch-on-warning” policy of nuclear missiles. That is to say that if one nation believed it was being attacked, they would launch retaliatory nuclear missiles before the enemy rockets had a chance to impact; after all, the threat of mutually assured destruction only works if both sides participate. Russian nuclear forces were immediately put on alert, and a frightened country that had a stockpile of 27,000 nuclear weapons with 4,000 on a hair trigger was coming face-to-face with the possibility of using them to potentially end millions of lives with the push of a few buttons. Advisors rushed to Yeltsin and apparently woke him at 2 a.m. wherein he had less than 10 minutes to decide the fate of the world after arming his nuclear football, also known as the “Cheget”. My question to the world is this: Was the only reason the launch order wasn’t given (as it should have under the doctrine at the time) because Yeltsin liked to kick back too much vodka?
Yeltsin is known to have loved alcohol a little too much. Most of us could only dream of having as much fun as ol’ Boris after slugging back too many vodka shots at dinner. His drunken triumphs include: using the president of Kyrgyzstan’s shiny bald head as a drum played with spoons, becoming the maestro of a military orchestra in Berlin, most likely getting President Clinton just as drunk as he was at a press conference which left our former POTUS crying tears of laughter in front of the world, and — my absolute favorite story — getting turbo drunk steps from the White House looking for pizza in his underwear. I believe these same rambunctious acts are the reason I’m able to live in Washington, D.C. now without mutating into a three-armed creature of the night. I think that when those Russian agents figuratively broke down Yeltsin’s door in horror and woke him up, he was too groggy and hungover to be sharp enough to push that (how I’m imagining it) big red button to blow up the world. Yeltsin did not follow his own military doctrine that day, and there are any number of reasons why. It was possible that he just did not believe the U.S. would launch an attack on Russia on a regular day with no prior conflict. Maybe part of him believed that it was a nuclear missile, but he did not want to be responsible for the murder of millions of innocent civilians solely for the purpose of revenge. Whatever the case truly was, all we know is that Yeltsin waited longer than he should have, and was delighted with the beautiful sight of the Norwegian research rocket safely landing in the ocean away from Russian territory.
My own silly theory is only hearsay that will most likely never be substantiated, even if it truly happened. However, it does bring to a light a more important question: Should anyone hold the ability to end life as we know it because of something as innocuous as a message not reaching all of the links in a chain? After all, the United States and Norway did everything they were supposed to when they warned the Russian Defense Ministry of the impending launch, but that wasn’t enough to hold off the possibility of nuclear annihilation of two countries that had a combined 38,000 nukes at the time of the incident. It is time we look deeply into JFK’s wise words of the past and ask ourselves if we are willing sheath the Sword of Damocles once and for all. Until then, we must hope that the liquor cabinets of the nuclear powers stay well stocked.
Andre Gziryan is a Soviet-born American who prefers G.I. Joe to Uncle Joe. He is a former barman who currently works as an international trade analyst at the Department of Commerce. What he lacks in military knowledge he makes up for with a love of all things creative and spirituous.
Photo credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #888938 / Dmitryi Donskoy / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Correction: This article originally identified the missile that was thought to have been launched from a silo in North Dakota as a “Trident missile.” This was a mistake as a Trident is submarine launched.