How should this influence your choice of candidate?

Here’s what happened.

On 25 January 1995 a team of Norwegian and American scientists launched a Black Brant XII sounding rocket from the Andøya Space Center off the coast of Norway. Their aim was to study the Aurora Borealis. They didn’t know it at the time but they nearly triggered a holocaust that could have caused the end of human civilisation.

As was required by protocol the scientists had notified all surrounding countries, including Russia, that the sounding rocket launch was imminent. For some reason the Russians failed to pass the message to radar technicians manning their early warning radar systems.  To them the sounding rocket looked like a missile launched from an American Trident submarine.

The result was a full scale nuclear alert. The Russians feared the warheads on the solitary Trident missile, as they thought it was, would be detonated at high altitude creating an electromagnetic pulse that would blind Russian radar and clear the way for a surprise American attack.

Russian nuclear submarine commanders were put on standby and told to prepare to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. Then President Boris Yeltsin was alerted and given the Russian equivalent of the nuclear football containing the codes that would enable him to authorise missile launch. Fortunately the incident caught Yeltsin in a sober moment. Or maybe the gravity of the decision he would have to make sobered him up. In any event, he hesitated.

After about ten minutes radar technicians determined that the mysterious missile was headed away from Russia and was not a threat.  The world was saved because the Russian president kept his wits about him.

This was not the first time the world has come to the brink of nuclear destruction. On 9 November 1979 Zbigniew Brzezinski, then President Carter’s national security adviser, was woken by a phone call from North American Air Defence Command, NORAD, advising him of an incoming missile attack from the Soviet Union.

The story has it that Brzezinski decided not to wake his wife and wait a few minutes before calling President Carter.  As he was preparing to make the call to the White House NORAD phoned back. It turned out to be a false alarm caused by “computer tests and worn out computer chips.”

That’s right. Faulty computer chips nearly wiped out human civilisation!

No system is fool proof. False alarms can happen at any time and they will. Putin replacing Yeltsin has probably increased the dangers of a miscalculation. Would Putin have hesitated the way Yeltsin did?

Which of the current crop of presidential candidates do you think is most likely to keep his wits about him or her and react calmly and rationally when faced with a nuclear doomsday decision?

In the end that may be the most important criterion for selecting a candidate.

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