7 Close Calls in the Nuclear Age

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Getty Images

Here's a formula for fun: Arm two superpowers to the teeth with thousands of nuclear warheads. Make sure they are deeply hostile and suspicious of each other. Now, cut off diplomatic communication, stir in about 50 smaller countries with their own agendas on each side, and you've got yourself a cold war!

1. Suez Crisis

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On November 5, 1956, during the Suez crisis, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) received warnings that seemed to indicate that a large-scale Soviet attack was under way: a Soviet fleet was moving from the Black Sea to a more aggressive posture in the Aegean, 100 Soviet MiGs were detected flying over Syria, a British bomber had just been shot down in Syria, and unidentified aircraft were in flight over Turkey, causing the Turkish air force to go on high alert. All signs pointed to the ominous, except that, not long after, each of the four warnings was found to have a completely innocent explanation. The Soviet fleet was conducting routine exercises, the MiGs were part of a normal escort—whose size had been exaggerated—for the president of Syria, the British bomber had made an emergency landing after mechanical problems, and, last but not least, the unidentified planes over Turkey? Well, they turned out to be a large flock of swans.

2. SAC-NORAD Communication Failure

On November 24, 1961, all communication links between the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) and NORAD suddenly went dead, cutting off the SAC from three early warning radar stations in England, Greenland, and Alaska. The communication breakdown made no sense, though. After all, a widespread, total failure of all communication circuits was considered impossible, because the network included so many redundant systems that it should have been failsafe. The only alternative explanation was that a full-scale Soviet nuclear first strike had occurred. As a result, all SAC bases were put on alert, and B-52 bomber crews warmed up their engines and moved their planes onto runways, awaiting orders to counterattack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Luckily, those orders were never given. It was discovered that the circuits were not in fact redundant because they all ran through one relay station in Colorado, where a single motor had overheated and caused the entire system to fail.

3. U2 Spy Plane Accidentally Violates Soviet Airspace

U2 spy planes were high-altitude aircraft that took pictures of the Soviet Union with extremely powerful long-distance telephoto lenses. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, U2 pilots were ordered not to fly within 100 miles of the Soviet Union to avoid antagonizing the Soviets. However, on October 26, 1962, a U2 pilot flying over the North Pole made a series of navigational errors because the shifting lights of the aurora borealis prevented him from taking accurate readings with his sextant. As a result, he ended up flying over the Chukotski Peninsula in northern Siberia, causing the Soviets to order a number of MiG interceptors to shoot his plane down immediately. Instead of letting him be shot down, however, the United States responded quickly by sending out F-102A fighters armed with nuclear missiles to escort the U2 back to American airspace and prevent the MiGs from following it. Unbelievably, the tactic worked. Even more amazing: the decision whether to use their nuclear missiles was left to the American pilots, and could have easily resulted in a nuclear conflict.

4. When Camping, Make Sure to Hide Your Nuclear Weapons

On October 25, 1962, again during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a security guard at an air base in Duluth, Minnesota, saw a shadowy figure scaling one of the fences enclosing the base. He shot at the intruder and activated an intruder alarm, automatically setting off intruder alarms at neighboring bases. However, at the Volk Field air base in Wisconsin, the Klaxon loudspeaker had been wired incorrectly, and instead sounded an alarm ordering F-106A interceptors armed with nuclear missiles to take off. The pilots assumed that a full-scale nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union had begun. The planes were about to take off when a car from the air traffic control tower raced down the tarmac and signaled the planes to stop. The intruder in Duluth had finally been identified: it was a bear.

5. A Terrifying Crash

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On January 21, 1968, fire broke out on a B-52 carrying a nuclear payload near Greenland, forcing the crew to bail out. The unmanned plane then crashed about seven miles from the early warning radar station in Greenland. The damage done could have been remarkable. The plane exploded, as did the explosives surrounding the radioactive core of the nuclear weapons (which require conventional explosives to detonate). Given the state of nuclear weapons technology at the time, this type of unintentional detonation of conventional first-stage explosives could have theoretically triggered the second-stage fission reaction, resulting in a nuclear explosion. Luckily for the world, it didn't. The resulting explosion would have not only severed regular communications between the early warning station and NORAD, it would have also triggered an emergency alarm based on radiation readings taken by sensors near the station. The only conclusion at NORAD headquarters, in this grisly hypothetical but very plausible scenario, would have been that the Soviets were launching a preemptive nuclear strike, and the United States would have responded in kind.

6. Comp Fear

On November 9, 1979, four command centers for the U.S. nuclear arsenal received data on their radar screens indicating that the Soviet Union had launched a full-scale nuclear first strike on the United States. Over the next six minutes, planes were launched and nuclear missiles initialized for an immediate retaliatory strike. The president's National Emergency Airborne Command Post—an armored jumbo jet with radiation shielding and advanced communications capabilities, meant to allow the president to remain in contact with the government and armed forces during a nuclear war—was also launched, though curiously without the president aboard. However, the alarm was canceled because no sensors or satellites detected an actual Soviet missile launch. The alarm had been caused by computer software used for training exercises depicting a nightmare scenario Soviet first strike. Senator Charles Percy, who happened to be at NORAD headquarters during this event, said the reaction was one of overwhelming panic and terror. Justifiably so.

7. Comp Fear, Part 2

Electronic displays at NORAD, the SAC, and the Pentagon included prominent, highly visible numeric counters showing the number of enemy nuclear missiles detected. They normally displayed four zeros—"0000"—indicating that no nuclear missiles had been launched. However, on June 3, 1980, at 2:25 in the morning, the counters started randomly substituting the number "2" for "0." As a result, crews manning bombers carrying nuclear weapons were ordered to begin to warm up their engines, Minuteman missiles were initialized for launch, and airborne command posts were also launched. It was determined that this first event was a false alarm, but three days later it happened a second time—causing the entire emergency response procedure to start rolling once again. The problem was eventually traced back to a single faulty computer chip combined with faulty wiring.

This article was excerpted from our book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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A User's Guide to the Branches of U.S. Government

Gage Skidmore, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Gage Skidmore, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

By Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, Quick and Dirty Tips

Today, we're bringing you our very own Big Three—the three branches of the U.S. government: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

But before we tackle that, let's get one important thing out of the way. The system that keeps it all spinning—checks and balances. Because as Federalist Paper #51 puts it, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

What is the separation of power in the U.S. government? Checks and balances!

The framers were very much aware that the grand ideas and philosophies they laid out in the Constitution would have to be implemented by fallible humans. And fallible humans have a tendency to get a little wild-eyed where power is concerned.

The first step in creating checks and balances was to skirt the whole king issue by splitting the governing power across three branches—something called the separation of power. But that wouldn't be enough. Those branches would need to keep a watchful eye over one another so that no one entity would get too big for its britches.

Who checks Congress?

So, let's start where the Constitution starts—Congress. The legislative branch makes laws that govern the people of the nation. Pretty straightforward, right? Of course, that's also an immense, almost staggering amount of power. You've got 535 mostly white, mostly male, mostly well-off people—that's 435 congresspeople and 100 senators—making the rules for hundreds of millions of Americans. What could possibly go wrong?

James Madison had our back on this one. So here's the catch, or in this case, the "check."

In order for a bill from Congress to actually become law, the president has to either sign it or, alternatively, do this thing where he doesn't do anything to it and the bill becomes a law on its own. But if the law says something like "Only Americans whose names end in the letter L are allowed to drive," the president could say "Hey, I don't like that. I'm vetoing it."

But then Congress has the power to veto that veto with a veto override, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in both houses.

That veto override can be helpful if you've got a president who's totally at odds with Congress. Andrew Johnson, for example, had 15 of his vetoes overridden. That's a lot, given the fact that we've only had 111 veto overrides in the history of the United States.

The veto override, in and of itself, is a check, both on Congress and the president. But just because Congress overrides a veto to make that the law, it doesn't mean that that law is good or right. Lucky for us, the framers thought of that one, too.

What about the judicial branch?

Is that the solemn swish of black robes we hear?

There are keepers of the Constitution—the judicial branch, specifically the Supreme Court. If Congress strong-arms a law into being, the Supreme Court can then review it and strike it down if they deem it unconstitutional.

And that power to strike down laws is not constitutional power. It's a power that the Supreme Court essentially gave to themselves in their ruling on Marbury v. Madison.

The ability to grant governmental powers is, in fact, quite an immense amount of power on its own. It's the executive branch's job to prosecute violations of federal law through the Department of Justice. And the prosecutor has the power to bring a case before the Supreme Court or not. And Congress has the power to regulate federal jurisdiction.

In other words, they can decide the kinds of cases that the courts have the power to rule on.

Impeachment and other checks

Congress has the power to impeach members of the federal judiciary. And, of course, they can also impeach the president.

The president is mainly checked by Congress. Impeachment is a big check, but a relatively rare one. More frequently, Congress holds the purse strings and can slow the president's agenda by not budgeting for the things the president wants. They can also pass laws like the 22nd Amendment, which said, yeah, no more Franklin Delano Roosevelt; we're limiting all presidents to two terms in office.

But what do we do if the executive goes all rogue and we can't wait for Congress to pass a law or an amendment?

That's where those constitutional stewards, the Supreme Court justices, come into play again. The Supreme Court has the power to declare executive actions unconstitutional. It is a rare bird, that one, but all-important in a government where men are most certainly not angels.

What are the three branches of the U.S. government?

Now that we know how we keep the government from going mad with power, what is it that we're keeping in check?

Let's start with the Constitution itself and the legislative branch.

The legislative branch—Congress

Article I, which sets up the power of the legislative branch, gets far more ink than any other branch. It's four out of the seven pages of the Constitution. But what are these two houses of Congress? Are they alike in dignity? What do they even do?

It's a poorly guarded secret that the framers were a little bit scared of democracy. Having one large legislative house that's determined by the size of the population? That was scary to them. So we have two houses in our bicameral legislature.

The House of Representatives is the large brass 435-member chamber that's up for election every two years. The more people you have in your state, the more representatives you get in the House.

And then we have the highfalutin Senate. The Senate consists of two senators from each state, and each gets a six-year term.

While the House and Senate have several separate powers, they have one big collective one—they're the ones who make the laws that govern our country.

The Schoolhouse Rock version is that the House or the Senate initiates bills, they go to committee, they get out of committee, they're voted on, and then they go to the other chamber for a similar process. And if it passes both houses, it goes to the Resolute Desk of the President of the United States to be signed into law.

We're going to tell you right now, the Schoolhouse Rock version is almost never how bills actually become law.

There are 1000 pitfalls that alter and stymie a bill at every turn. Suffice to say, it is a winding path. Indeed, the one difference between the two chambers is that only the House, not the Senate, can initiate bills to do with spending. This is called the Power of the Purse. The framers thought the people's House should be the one who decides where the money goes.

Who can be a Senator or Representative?

The actual restrictions on who can become a senator or congressperson are few. For representatives, you have to be at least 25 years old and have been a U.S. citizen for seven years to qualify. And for the Senate, you have to be 30 years old and a citizen for nine years.

The bills that get proposed in either chamber have such a litany of obstacles that only about 3 percent of proposed bills become law. And most of those are noncontroversial, like naming a courthouse or making an honorary holiday.

Some see the fact that so little legislation is actually passed as terrible. And others see it as a wonderful feature of our democracy because a congress that passes tons of legislation has way too much power.

What other powers does Congress have?

The House has some unique powers—they can break an electoral tie to determine the next president. And that hasn't happened since the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876.

The House can also initiate impeachment. But they just initiate; they don't actually remove the official from office.

Many of us know this since we recently had an impeached president. The House starts the procedure. And with a majority vote, that official is impeached. The Senate then holds a trial, and it requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate to remove that official from office.

And this leads us to the unique powers of the Senate. As we said, they try impeachments and remove officials from office. They also confirm presidential appointments for over 2000 different positions. The president picked someone for a job (like a cabinet position or a judge), and 99 percent of the time, the Senate gives the appointee the thumbs up.

The Senate also picks the vice president in case of an electoral tie, which happened one time and probably won't again, since nowadays, the VP and president run on the same ticket.

And one final thing—either house can declare war, which is something we haven't actually done since 1942. So how have we been in so much war since then?

And that's your very subtle transition to the powers of the executive.

The executive branch—the President and federal government departments

When you think of the executive branch you think of, well, the executive—the president.

But the executive branch employs over 4 million people. It is the nation's largest employer by a wide margin. The Department of Defense alone out-employs Walmart by about a million people.

And that's what we think it can be easy to forget—the executive branch comprises not only the president and everyone who works in the Executive Administrative Office, but there are also 15 departments that fall under the banner of the executive branch. Those department heads make up the president's cabinet, along with whomever else the president appoints as an advisor, and hundreds of smaller agencies.

Here are the 15 federal departments in the order of their creation.

  1. State Department. They handle relationships with foreign countries.
  2. Treasury. They make the money by collecting taxes. This includes the IRS.
  3. Defense. Our largest department, which includes the military.
  4. Justice. They enforce laws that protect public safety. This includes the FBI and U.S. Marshals.
  5. Interior. The Department of the Interior manages the conservation of our land, which includes national parks.
  6. Agriculture. That's the USDA. They oversee farming.
  7. Commerce. They promote our economy and handle international trade.
  8. Labor. That's our workforce.
  9. Health and Human Services. That includes the FDA and the CDC. They also manage Medicare and Medicaid.
  10. Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They address national housing needs.
  11. Transportation. That's the federal highways and the Federal Aviation Administration.
  12. Energy. They manage our energy and research better ways to make it.
  13. Education. They focus on national education and federal student loan programs.
  14. Veterans. Veterans Affairs programs benefit those who have served in the military.
  15. Homeland Security. It's their job to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks within the United States.

Now, there are the president's constitutional powers, and then there are the president's political powers. Most broadly, with the aid of the many executive departments, the president is tasked with making sure laws are followed through with. And we already know the president can sign bills into law or veto them. The Constitution also empowers the president to appoint people to powerful positions in the cabinet, as well as the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and circuit courts. All told, the president appoints people to around 4000 positions, 1200 of which require Senate approval.

That's a lot of appointment power. And of course, the president is empowered to make treaties with foreign nations and is the commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.

But the president cannot declare war.

Here's where we stumble into those political powers not enumerated in the Constitution. Congress has not declared war since World War II. America's presidents have led us into many armed conflicts without congressional approval and simply called them "police actions." Police actions can look like war, act like war, talk like war. But if warlike actions are called police actions, they can be done without congressional approval.

What are executive orders and executive agreements?

So, there are also these things called executive orders where the president simply declares something. And executive orders happen. When Obama wanted immigration policy, and he couldn't get it from Congress, he just signed the DREAM Act. And a lot of undocumented teenagers got to stay in the U.S.

Executive agreements fall along a similar line in terms of skirting Congress, but they are used in place of treaties. The president can just make an agreement with a foreign nation without going through the treaty process.

We should clarify (because these executive orders and agreements sound like a big ol' way around the checks and balances our framers so thoughtfully established) that the Supreme Court can block an order or agreement, and Congress can pass a law that invalidates that action. The only underlying principle is that any executive action has some sort of legal validation process.

It's all about what Congress or the Supreme Court chooses to let fly.

The Vice President

And let's not forget the veep—the vice president.

The vice president has long gotten the short shrift in the United States. For most of the job's history, it was barely a job at all.

The vice president is president of the Senate. That means that they preside over proceedings, but they only get to vote in the event of a tiebreaker. So, usually, they just don't show up. More recently, the veep has been tapped to represent the president in matters of foreign relations. And, of course, on the rare occasion that the president dies while in office or resigns, the vice president gets the world's biggest promotion.

The judicial branch—The Supreme Court

That just leaves one branch hanging, the one that Alexander Hamilton called "the weakest branch" and "next to nothing."

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the Supreme Court interprets it. They decide what is or is not constitutional. Article III of the Constitution, which deals with the judiciary, is short and vague. (One scholar told us it was so short and vague because the framers wanted to get the heck out of there before Rhode Island showed up and made a hash of everything.)

But while the Constitution was vague on the powers of the Supreme Court, we've cleared that up a bit since then. They have less notable powers, which is that they hear cases involving ambassadors, public officials, and states. But most of the time the Supreme Court is an appellate court, which means that it hears appeals. You don't like the outcome of a state or federal court decision? You can appeal it up to a higher court.

And this is important—you're not appealing the verdict of the jury. You're not disputing if you're guilty or not. You're appealing the way that the trial went. You're saying that the laws that you broke were unconstitutional.

This power, which is called judicial review, was granted upon the Supreme Court by the Supreme Court itself in the first landmark case, Marbury v. Madison, which is a delightful tale. We're gonna get into that in the next episode, so let's talk about how a case gets to the highest court in the land—with an immense amount of difficulty.

Appeals to state and local decisions rise slowly but surely through the American court system. But that last step is nigh on impossible. To get your case heard by the nine in D.C., you have to file for what's called a writ of certiorari, which honestly, nobody can agree on how to pronounce. That writ tells the court, you should hear my case and here's why.

Between 7000 and 8000 writs of certiorari are filed each year. And the court agrees to hear about 80. You're more likely to have your case heard if there's what's called a circuit split, where several of the circuit courts in the U.S. have ruled differently on something and you've got parts of the country interpreting the constitution differently.

The parties in a Supreme Court case aren't a plaintiff and defendant like on The People's Court or Judge Judy—they are petitioner and respondent.

The petitioner lost their last case, and they're petitioning to have it heard. And in the case name, the petitioner's name always comes first. So in a trial like Texas v. Johnson, Texas lost the last case, and they're petitioning to have it reversed.

One more word, it's not lawyers who present arguments in the Supreme Court. They're referred to as advocates.

The court hears cases starting in October. They discuss them in conferences, they vote on them, and someone who voted in the majority writes the opinion, which is read some time afterward. Other justices can add their name to that opinion if they have concurring opinions with different legal reasoning. Or if you're on the side that voted the other way, you can write a dissent.

By the way, the vast majority of Supreme Court decisions are unanimous, but like everything, it's never so cut and dry as that. Once the court rules, you have the long circuitous route to the states adopting the ruling into their laws, which can take decades.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as A User's Guide to the Branches of U.S. Government. Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the authors

Hannah McCarthy is the co-host of Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio. She came to New Hampshire by way of Brooklyn where she worked as a radio producer and writer. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nick Capodice is the co-host of Civics 101. Before coming to NHPR, Nick worked in the Education Department at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where he wrote and led tours, trained educators, and helped design digital exhibits. He also led beer history and tasting tours for Urban Oyster in Brooklyn.

Nick and Hannah are the authors of A User's Guide to Democracy: How America Works, with illustrations by Tom Toro.