“For 40 Minutes in 1971, It Seemed the End Was Near”
I was a junior then senior in High School in 1971 and the world was a very chaotic place. Some would even say it was explosive. The Vietnam War was still raging despite the peace talks that had been underway. Conflicts in Ireland and around the Middle East went from hot to cold on a regular basis. India and Pakistan were at odds in a shooting war and our own country was still very much aware that less than nine years before, the Cuban Missile Crisis had nearly created World War 3.
Nuclear testing by the free world and the USSR was a routine event.
Since I was born in 1954, my generation was used to the idea that there might come a day when nuclear weapons might be used in a war. To be honest, since there was so little trust between the East and the West, it was almost assumed by many that a Pearl Harbor style attack would be how we would get hit. My father’s generation was still in control and still bore the emotional and physical scars of the last war.
The proliferation of testing and the advances in delivery systems did nothing to calm the waters. In a tit for tat back and forth exchange, testing and new weapons were introduced with strength in the sixties and seventies. This only served to heighten the tension and seeming escalation. Remember that the American submarine fleet swelled to its full “41 for Freedom” size by the early seventies and the USSR continued to build their own underwater launch platforms with great speed. The fear of missiles dropping with little warning was a constant threat.
So the country developed a federal alert system to try and warn as many people as possible. It did not happen overnight. The system hasn’t always been in place. And more honestly, it hasn’t always worked. Despite assurance of the federal government, there were flaws in the system and frankly one of those flaws resulted in a test that went very badly on February 20, 1971. The result of that test failure resulted in widespread panic that America had been attacked and was entering a nuclear war.
Fortunately the authorities did not over react. Adjustments were made to the alert system.
I would join my place in the defense of freedom in April of 1972. In October 1973, our systems would once more be tested during the Yom Kippur war. But that is a story for another day.
America and her allies won the First Cold War as the USSR disintegrated. But as we watch Russia once more threaten disharmony in an attempt to show her previous reign as a super power, we are reminded that it would only take a moment to change the planet we call home. Add to that the growth of the Communist Chinese Party and their territorial aims.
One can only hope and pray that the leaders of the Free World are competent, capable and courageous in the face of these renewed threats. Or World War Three will indeed be a short event.
5 thoughts on “February 1971 – This is not a Test”
I was living in Ballston Spa at the time while at the S3G prototype getting trained for my role in the nuclear navy. I heard the “…this is not a test…” and decided that I did not want to be conscious for the flash-bang so proceeded to drink myself into oblivion (obviously, this was before Christ got my attention). I was on my initial patrol on the Lafayette during the Yom Kippur was and we went to 1SQ and waited for either the confirmation to launch or the EM spectrum to go silent. A very long several hours later we stood down.
Do you know the exact time of day when this occurred?
At 9:33 AM EST on Saturday, February 20, 1971, at the commencement of a scheduled test, a teletype operator at the National Warning Center inadvertently fed the incorrect tape into the teletype transmitter, sending out an emergency message to 5,000 radio and 800 television stations across the United States. The message was accompanied by the authenticator “hatefulness”, that day’s code not for a test, but for an actual national emergency.
The teletype message read:
MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS, HATEFULNESS
THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION (EAN) DIRECTED BY THE PRESIDENT.
NORMAL BROADCASTING WILL CEASE IMMEDIATELY. ALL STATIONS WILL BROADCAST EAN MESSAGE ONE PRECEDED BY THE ATTENTION SIGNAL, PER FCC RULES. ONLY STATIONS HOLDING NDEA MAY STAY ON AIR IN ACCORD WITH THEIR STATE EBS PLAN.
BROADCAST EAN MESSAGE ONE.
MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS, HATEFULNESS
Fairly quickly after the emergency alert was sent out, the National Warning Center realized the error. A message was sent saying: THIS IS THE NATIONAL WARNING CENTER – CANCEL EAN TAPE SENT AT 9:33 EST. Since the message did not include a code word, though, conscientious stations were obligated to ignore the retraction.
At 9:59 EST the National Warning Center tried again, using the code word “hatefulness.” However, since “hatefulness” was the code word to initiate emergency action, not conclude it, many stations again ignored the message.
At 10:13 EST, 40 minutes after the initial emergency alert had been transmitted, the Center found the right formula, issuing a retraction along with the day’s correct authenticator to cancel action, “impish.”
President Nixon declined to comment on the incident, but the Pentagon released a statement placing the blame solely on the Office of Civil Defense, overseers of the National Warning Center. The Center’s own investigation concluded that it was simple human error. It seems that the tapes, for both tests and actual emergencies, had been hung side-by-side on pegs in front of the teletype operator at the NWC, almost begging for the wrong tape to be pulled and transmitted.
Sometimes mistakes just happen, was the conclusion. It’s hard to disagree. Thankfully, for most of us, our mistakes don’t portend World War III.