A MAD False Alarm

Radar screen.
Nuclear missiles.
The fifteen individual states that made up the Soviet Union before this union disintegrated in 1991. Number eleven is Russia.

After a period of intense competition and near-war situations, U.S.–Soviet relations improved somewhat in the 1970s. Agreements to limit parts of the costly arms race were now signed, and a symbolic event took place in space when astronauts from the two countries docked their spacecrafts and shook hands. Nevertheless, missiles loaded with nuclear warheads were still aimed at both Moscow and Washington D.C., and new and deadlier weapons continued to be developed.

A few stressful minutes

Despite seemingly better relations, the same precautions were taken in the 1970s as had been taken previously during the Cold War. Among other things, military personnel in both the U.S. and the USSR constantly scanned radar screens for incoming missiles. If, by indications on these screens, it looked like the enemy had offensively fired their missiles, according to instructions, radar operators were to immediately inform their nation’s leader. The U.S. president or his Soviet counterpart, after having been notified about an attack, would then have a stressful few minutes to decide on a retaliatory nuclear strike before his country lay in ruins. These proceedings, which made sure that an aggressor country would also be obliterated, was called launch on warning. Furthermore, if a country launched their nuclear weapons on warning, the predicted outcome was known as mutually assured destruction, or MAD.

In dealing with nuclear weapons and launch on warning-situations, the rapid decision making left no room for errors; yet, errors were made. In 1979, for example, a U.S. radar screen displayed a massive Soviet missile attack. As a response, the United States was about to launch its own nuclear warheads when, at the last minute, information came in that it had been a false alarm. The radar screen had shown a training tape.

The Soviet Union collapses

Radar screens and potential nuclear threats, after the near-war event in 1979, continued to be focal points in the Cold War power-play of the 1980s and early 90s. At this time, though, the Soviet Union also entered a new political phase. The new phase consisted of economic stagnation and political turmoil, which ultimately led to the union disintegrating in 1991. With the Soviet Union thereafter being a thing of the past and communism consequently no longer being state ideology in the former eastern bloc, east–west tensions let up and the Cold War was said to be over.