Cause and Effect

Tactical Geese

The unexpected third party in the nuclear stalemate.

Little known fact, but the eventual end of the nuclear proliferation stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as a near-miss event that could have led to our own nuclear annihilation, were both caused by a flock of geese.

In the mid-1960’s, Mikhail Gorbachev was a relatively minor political official, conducting a tour of some of the control rooms and monitoring stations that comprised the Soviet Union’s early-warning system. Teams of men kept close watch over dozens, even hundreds of radar and satellite feeds, ensuring that they would know at a moment’s notice if an attack were launched by the United States against their communist rival.

Mr. Gorbachev has told the story many times, and the details have varied somewhat from one rendition to another, but piecing together details from his various tellings, it seems that what happened was that while he was in the room, the tension level suddenly shot up. The Soviets noticed warning signs that the Americans had suddenly dramatically increased their alert status, and a debate swiftly raged around the room about whether they should do the same as a precaution. As the argument swirled around, a telephone rang in a far corner. The room hushed as the officer answered the call, and a brief conversation in hushed tones quickly transpired.

Apparently, the call came from an American counterpart in an identical monitoring room, in blatant violation of protocol. The American officer, in patchwork Russian, informed his counterpart that their radar monitoring stations were picking up what appeared to be a small fleet of extremely slow-moving bombers, moving from Russia down the Alaskan coastline. The Americans had ramped up their alert status out of concern for an impending attack, but the officer on the watch station thought something looked abnormal.

The Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear", one of the candidates the Americans feared were on the way.

Rather than going through official channels – which, he feared, might cause the situation to escalate – he simply called his counterpart in the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t make sense, he reasoned, for the Soviets to send only a very few planes, moving very slowly, in a single-pronged attack. So while many of his compatriots snapped to attention and started following policy guidelines, he broke with the rules and simply asked his low-ranking counterpart if the Soviets were about to start a war.

The officer in Russia suddenly found himself in a terrible situation; he was on the phone with an American officer, demanding to know if the Soviets were attacking, while a significant number of Communist Party members were in the room, watching him intently. If he said the wrong thing, he could be convicted as a traitor, or he could incite a nuclear war. Considering the options, he decided that the war was the greater risk, and informed the American point-blank that no such attack had been ordered. Co-workers near him snapped to their tasks, trying to track down the mysterious signal the Americans were reporting, and they were able to locate it: a hazy, in-and-out contact moving down the coastline towards Seattle. Tensions rose as both nations tried frantically to understand what was going on before someone foolishly panicked.

After what seemed an eternity, a monitoring station in Alaska was able to spot the slow-moving attack. It was an enormous flock of migrating geese, large enough and varied enough to appear to be a fleet of bombers trying to fly low enough to avoid detection by radar. The release of tension caused laughter on both ends of the phone, and with some relief, both nations stood down from their elevated alert status.

The officer who had received the phone call apparently received a mild discipline for breaking protocol, with a quiet congratulations attached for averting a disaster, but the incident stuck in Gorbachev’s mind. Firstly, he saw the enormous value in having a simple conversation, rather than leaping to assumptions; but more importantly, he saw the geese as a symbol. Despite all the bluff and bluster between the two nations, this flock of geese didn’t care that some groups of men had drawn lines on the dirt to define their property. Suddenly, says Gorbachev, it all seemed very trivial. These geese had been making that trip for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and yet suddenly in the previous few decades some humans had decided it was their own domain. These men were willing to go to war because of a few flying birds, and the incident had the effect of providing Gorbachev with some perspective.

Firstly, the value of that witnessed conversation was something he never forgot. The power of a nuclear weapon paled in comparison with the power of a discussion, and he wondered what more could be achieved if there was a greater flow of conversation, both within and outside of the Soviet Union. As he rose to power, he clung to those ideals, and once he had solidified his position as General Secretary, he implemented the dual reforms of Glasnost and Perestroika – meaning “openness” and “restructuring”, respectively.

"Talk" was quite the concept at the time.

The core principles were that Soviets should be allowed to have discussions about what was happening in their world, and be allowed to make recommendations for changes and improvements that would impact their lives. Gorbachev didn’t simply dictate policy, however; he also lived by his own rules. For the first time in decades, he reached out to his counterpart in America and suggested that they sit down to talk. No demands, no stipulations, no expectations; simply a talk.

That first conversation did not go well. He and President Reagan ended up hurling insults and accusations at one another, with each blaming the other for all the problems in the relationship between the two superpowers. The meeting ended on a sour note, with Gorbachev deriding Reagan as an extremist conservative and a “dinosaur”, and Reagan lamenting that Gorbachev was nothing more than another hardline Bolshevik. At first, from both sides, the meeting appeared to be a failure, but Gorbachev realized that the simple fact that they had even had the conversation was a victory. He reached out to Reagan again, and Reagan, surprised after the tone of the first meeting, agreed.

In the next meeting, Gorbachev recounted the story of the flock of geese, and Reagan found the tale just as inspirational. Gorbachev put the question to Reagan in much the same way as the American officer had asked his Soviet counterpart: “Does your nation intend to attack us with nuclear weapons?”

Reagan, somewhat surprised, answered that the very idea of the Americans launching a “first strike” against the Soviets was absolutely appalling to them, and something they would never consider. Gorbachev replied that his nation felt the same way, and pushed the point one step further: If neither nation planned to attack the other, then the nuclear arsenals they pointed at one another served no purpose but to create a scenario where a simple accident could cause their mutual annihilation. Why not remove the weapons, one at a time, together, until tensions slowly eased?

This is, of course, exactly what happened. Gradually the two nations stopped pointing weapons at each other, and Reagan gave Gorbachev a carved statue of a goose in flight as a reminder of the power of a conversation. The threat of nuclear annihilation all but vanished, and gradually the control rooms, the locations for the incident that set everything in motion, fell quiet and slipped into obsolescence.

Unfortunately for Gorbachev, the decrease in nuclear tensions meant that his government could no longer maintain the fierce grip on its populace, but as he had seen the benefits of a little bit of openness, he gradually revealed that this was not something he wanted to see at any rate. He allowed his people to experience freedom; he encouraged debate and listened to opinions, and he ran his government according to the lessons he learned in that control room so many years before.

His policies, and the way he ran his government, very quickly led to the collapse of the entire Soviet Union. Many in his nation hated him for that; it was many years before the Russian people were able to pull themselves from the resulting rubble and start to build normal lives for themselves. In many ways, this still hasn’t happened, over twenty years later. Gorbachev, however, isn’t bothered. In one interview, he pointed to several poll results in his country; one indicated that almost 80% of Russians lamented the fall of the Soviet Union, but the other showed that only 4% would want to return to the old ways.

Once a bird has seen what it is like to fly, it never wants to be caged again.

[Image sources: AvianPhotography, IllusionofVolition, Histor-C]

  • Silly birds.

    The relationship that Gorbechev and Reagan had is something special. Not only did it change the course of human history, but it is built on a very deep mutual respect.

    Sadly, it seems Russia's current leadership wants to return to a more hardline government.

  • Wow.

    Great piece Mitch…

  • name_too_long

    Any word on whether those were *Canadian* geese?

    Seems like a Canadian thing to do; get the US and Russia to do all the heavy lifting in their world domination plan by nuking each other into oblivion leaving a power vacuum Canada can step right into. They're crafty like that, those Canadians.

    • Deartháir
      • PowerTryp

        I appreciate that a whole lot more knowing how much of a Trekkie you are.

        • CaptianNemo2001

          I think we can Photoshop him in to Star Trek.

    • The birdwatcher, pedant and latent Canadian in me feel the need to point out that any goose from Canada could be a Canadian goose, but the breed commonly found pooping great green masses of goo all across the United States is properly called the Canada Goose.

      • Matt

        Having taken many a journalism class, I can confirm that the Associated Press Stylebook lists the correct verbiage as "Canada Goose/Geese".

        In other news, "Dumpster" should always be capitalized, as it is a proper noun.

  • The Professor

    Nicely done.

  • erikotis75

    For everyone who enjoyed this outstanding piece check out David Hoffman's "The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy". A stunning, detailed book that certainly gave me a much more complete perspective on this era of world history.

    • Deartháir

      Thanks for that, I'll look for it. Is it written in a narrative style, or a more factual/reference style?

      • erikotis75

        Definitely narrative (Hoffman was the Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post for years), but with exhaustive end notes. He goes into great detail on the exchanges between Reagan and Gorbachev. Probably the most fascinating/frightening part of the book (at least to me) was the extensive look into the biological weapons development the Soviet Union conducted during the Cold War.

        • Deartháir

          Sweet, thanks for the recommendation! Also, welcome! I don't think I've noticed your comments here before!

          • erikotis75

            Thanks for the welcome! I had a spurt of activity about 6 moths ago and then work got insanely busy. I still found time to read the site periodically, but not often enough to comment. Hopefully things stay more reasonable now!

        • GlassOnion9

          If you'd like to read more about biological/chemical cold war weapons development, the book "Biohazard" by Ken Alibek is quite a fascinating read. He was the head of the Soviet bioweapons program until he defected sometime in the 90s.

          • erikotis75

            After reading "The Dead Hand" I added Alibek's book to my list of next reads as he plays a major role in "The Dead Hand." With your recommendation it will have to move up the queue!

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