The Cold War, in addition to sparking the space race, was a thing of a film maker’s dreams. Two global super-powers, shadows, busy train stations, intrigue, nuclear war heads, semi-clothed sex in alley ways and real life events that would leave modern day screen writers collectively exhaling. With one or two muttering “balls”, or words to that affect. Historians aren’t too sure what exactly started the Cold War but it was a long standing dirty eyed stand-off between the United States of America and the USSR after their fragile post-WW II alliance quickly fractured. A dispassionate, black gloved, Marxist-Leninist state ruled by a Communist Party and psychopathic secret police force on one side, and on the other the US – big on democracy, free press, capitalism, and sugary food.
The war was cold as there was no actual fighting, instead the war was waged through proxy wars, supported by the two ideologically opposed sides. The Berlin Blockade was the first major diplomatic scuffle when the Soviets decided to block the Allies from land access to West Berlin. The Soviets wanted the recently introduced Deutsche Mark removed from circulation, which appears sixty years removed from the front line nitty-gritty, perhaps a bit Under-11. What followed were bloody disputes in Latin America and a rapidly decolonising Africa. Crises arrived like London buses. The Suez crisis in 1956 – resolved by point of reference by our sixth greatest Canadian, one Lester B. Pearson – the Berlin crisis of 1961, and the famed Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Thereafter it all got even messier when China and the Soviet Union – the two communist brothers about town – then split, making diplomatic relations a whole lot more complicated.
The Soviets then brutally crushed the Prague Spring in 1968 and the US was defeated in the Vietnam war, a bloody, two-decade decimation of a country which pitted the North, backed by the communists, against the South and her democratic allies, the latter led by a tactically humbled Uncle Sam. Come the 1970s though, both sides were beginning to tire of the argey-bargey, and a more stable relationship took hold. This cautious détente collapsed however, when the Soviets decided to provide military support to the Taraki government in Afghanistan, who had got themselves into the carpeted corridors of power by the old-fashioned means of a coup. The Soviets then, it seems, staged their own coup and put a Kremlin-friendly stooge in charge. The CIA had a busy few years. The 1980s saw further tension. The Soviets shot down a Korean Airlines flight from New York City to Seoul killing all 269 people on board and NATO launched a massive military exercise that spanned Western Europe and simulated a DEFCON 1 coordinated nuclear attack which made the Kremlin sweat a bit, quite rightly, believing as they did it was a ruse for an imminent all-out assault.
Yet despite all such sweaty incidents, none were quite as sweaty as the ten-minute period when Boris Yeltsin had to weigh up whether he should take the advice of his generals and launch a nuclear attack on the United States. An incident that on account of it being just ten minutes long has yet to break it in Hollywood, but was the closest the two countries ever got to following through on the bullyboy nuclear rhetoric. The incident has been chalked down in history as the Norwegian rocket incident, and had the potential to have been one of the biggest political and military air-shots in human history.
On January 25th 1995, four years after the end of the Cold War, the mood was jovial in the Olenegorsk early warning centre. The radar operators kept an eye on their screens as they talked girls and Spartak Moscow. That was to change when blipping up on the screen, was a sight that chilled the spine and resulted in a frantic May day over the tannoy. The blip, looked exactly like a US sub-launched Trident missile. The officers looked at each other ashen faced. It was clear. Russia was under attack.
Word was rifled back to Moscow. A missile was basically heading their way, and it looked like a classic tactical opener, an electro-magnetic pulse attack that would knock out the radar and leave the country open to a full on American assault. The mood darkened when the radar appeared to show the missile separate, drop one of its engines and fire up another. The officers nodded to each other, there was now no doubt. This was what was called a multiple re-entry vehicle, which was a missile carrying multiple nuclear warheads. Get Boris on the line. Boris being Boris Yeltsin, a man who would, on a visit to Washington DC later the same year, be found wandering Pennsylvania Avenue in his underpants absolutely ball-bagged. Allegedly.
Yeltsin was immediately brought the cheget, Moscow’s nuclear briefcase. Yeltsin activated his keys, sat down and took a deep breath. Russian sub-marine commanders were ordered to sober up and stand by for action. No warning was given to the fun-loving people of Moscow though, who continued to sit in their featureless high-rise apartment blocks drinking vodka in an effort to make up for the lack of any hot water. Such was life in a communist state. The Russian generals meanwhile were convinced, willing their boss to press the button and save Moscow and their own hides, but Yeltsin wasn’t so sure. It’s not that he trusted the US – nobody really trusted the US then, as now – it was just that an attack at that time didn’t make any sense. He drummed his fingers on his desk and hummed Katyusha, a famous Russian wartime song. The clock ticked. With the back sweats breaking out, word was hastily received that the missile was heading out to sea. It later landed near Spitsbergen. Yeltsin presumably dismissed his generals and drained the drinks cabinet.
And what of the rocket? The rocket was a Black Brant XII rocket that was launched by some demure Norwegian scientists who were studying the aurora borealis – the Northern lights to anyone else – over Svalbard. They had notified the proper authorities and hadn’t given the flight a second thought and were oblivious to the clenched bum cheeks in Moscow. The problem was, no one had told the Russian radar team at Olenegorsk. On such margins history is made. Undies or no undies, God bless Boris Yeltsin.