Since the first nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, it's hard not to contemplate what might spark the next world war — and how it might end.
But while we have successfully avoided blowing ourselves into oblivion so far, there have been moments over the past 60 years when the start of World War 3 was a matter of a phone call away.
And the American public has largely been none the wiser.
Here's a look at 10 alarming occasions when miscommunications and other gaffes nearly led to global disaster…
LIST: 10 Close Calls That Nearly Started World War 3
World War 3 Close Call No. 10: The 1979 NORAD Training Program Mishap
On the morning of Nov. 9, 1979, technicians at Colorado's North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) command center were shocked to see their displays light up with the ultimate horror: a full-scale Soviet nuclear attack bearing down on the United States.
NORAD was to launch 10 interceptor fighter jets, get the president on an escape plane, and prepare to launch a retaliatory strike in its initial response. But before the command center made any moves, one technician realized he'd accidentally activated a training program to simulate a Soviet attack.
It was a human error that almost lead to war.
World War 3 Close Call No. 9: The Attack on Yeonpyeong
In November 2010, North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two soldiers and injuring civilians.
The United States and other countries around the world plead for restraint. Thankfully, South Korea heeded their calls. Speculation behind North Korea's motives mostly focused on South Korea's recent upgrade in global status that year, as the small island nation hosted the G20 Summit and gained international prestige for focusing its future agenda on global economics.
World War 3 Close Call No. 8: The Intruding Bear
In October 1962, a guard at a Duluth, Minnesota, air base saw a figure climbing the security fence. The guard shot at the intruder and set off the sabotage alarm, which automatically set off alarms at nearby bases.
But the wrong alarm went off at nearby Volk Field Air National Guard Base in Wisconsin. Instead of the sabotage alarm, the Klaxon sounded, signaling a nuclear war and ordering nuclear-armed F-106A interceptors to take off.
By the time communication with Duluth highlighted the error, aircraft were starting down the runway at Volk. A car racing from the command center successfully signaled the aircraft to stop.
And it turned out the intruder in Minnesota had been a wandering bear.
World War 3 Close Call No. 7: The 1995 Research Rocket
At dawn on the morning of Jan. 25, 1995, a Norwegian-U.S. joint research rocket, Black Brant XII, lifted off from an island off Norway's northwest coast. Ninety-three seconds after launch, the rocket exploded upwards, hurling itself and its payload even higher into the air.
The rocket, designed to study the aurora borealis, wound up as a wholly different kind of experiment instead: a test of U.S.-Russian relations, with the Cold War barely in the rearview mirror…
Upon spotting the rocket, Russian radar operators sent an alert to Moscow. Within minutes, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin was brought his black nuclear-command suitcase, reported The Washington Post on March 13, 1998.
Yeltsin conferred with defense ministers by telephone for several tense moments until he learned the rocket's actual intent.
World War 3 Close Call No. 6: The Soviet False Alarm
On the evening of Sept. 26, 1983, in a secret bunker operated by the Soviets, Commander Stanislav Petrov had just sat down when a loud siren went off, warning him that the United States had just fired missiles toward the USSR, according to a 2013 report from the BBC.
Petrov knew he only had a few minutes to respond and that the decision to fire back was left solely to his discretion.
The commander ultimately decided against. It occurred to him the computer system that had issued the warning was new and could be experiencing a glitch, the BBC report claimed. He chose to err on the side of caution — a decision that likely saved many lives.
World War 3 Close Call No. 5: The Middle East False Alarm
On Oct. 24, 1973, the United States sponsored a cease-fire to end the Arab-Israeli War. Still, further fighting between Egyptian and Israeli troops in Egypt's Sinai Desert continued.
Several U.S. officials, including then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, entered "DEFCON Three" to warn the USSR not to intervene with the events in Sinai. A DEFCON Three warning requires troops to immediately prepare for war. Kissinger felt that Russia could not counter this tactic, reported The Christian Science Monitor in 1993.
The DEFCON alert system is used by the U.S. Armed Forces to assign levels of military readiness for possible attacks. There are five qualifying levels – with DEFCON Five being the least severe and DEFCON One the most.
Typically, only the U.S. president can declare a DEFCON status, but then President Richard Nixon was asleep when Kissinger learned that the Soviet Union was considering interfering in Sinai. The president purportedly could not be bothered to wake up.
As a result of Kissinger's decision, Russia's Minister of Defense Andrei Grechko, and the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, claimed Russia felt threatened by the U.S.' DEFCON status…
Ultimately, the Soviet Union decided not to retaliate because it was not prepared to engage in large-scale war.
World War 3 Close Call No. 4: The Faulty Computer Chip
On June 3, 1980, a simple algorithm that showed both the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force when nukes were en route to the United States, read "2222" instead of its customary "0000" — indicating 2,222 missiles were in the air.
Though that's an insanely large amount of missiles, defense technicians at the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha, Nebraska, weren't going to take any chances. SAC personnel called NORAD, which said it had no indication of an attack.
After a few minutes, SAC screens cleared. Another few moments and SAC screens reported that Soviet ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) had been launched toward the United States. The National Military Command Center in the Pentagon received a similar reading.
That's when the SAC duty controller directed all alert crews at its post to move to their B-52 bombers and to start their engines, so that the planes could take off quickly and not be destroyed on the ground by a nuclear attack. Land-based missile crews were put on a high state of alert and battle-control aircraft prepared for flight. In Hawaii, the airborne post of the Pacific Command took off, ready to pass messages to U.S. warships if necessary.
Then the SAC screens cleared again — as did the Pentagon's.
It was later discovered that a single integrated circuit chip in the defense system's computer network malfunctioned, causing various command posts across the nation to receive readings that the United States was under attack.
World War 3 Close Call No. 3: The Accidental Emergency System Broadcast
In 1971, the Vietnam War was still in full swing, lending to mass confusion when America's Emergency Broadcast System went off at 9:33 a.m on Feb. 20.
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Turns out a teletype operator at the commencement of a regularly scheduled test inadvertently fed the incorrect punched tape into the transmitter. This sent out an emergency message to 5,000 radio stations and 800 television stations across the United States.
For the next 40 minutes, regular programming was put on hold as listeners and broadcasters anxiously waited to hear an announcement from the White House.
That announcement never came.
While the false alarm revealed the massive impact a simple human error can have, it also exposed just how unprepared the media truly was. You see, radio and TV stations did not know the correct procedures to follow after the broadcast. Some stations couldn't find their verification codes that an emergency was actually in effect on their daily code word lists, while others simply couldn't even find their lists. And some stations failed even to receive the alert at all.
World War 3 Close Call No. 2: The U2 Jet Flies into Soviet Airspace
On the night of Oct. 26, 1982, a U2 high altitude reconnaissance jet pilot was ordered to fly a new route over the North Pole.
That night the aurora borealis prevented the pilot from getting clear navigational readings and the plane strayed over the Chukotski Peninsula. Soviet MIG interceptors took off with orders to shoot down the U2. Meanwhile, the U.S. pilot contacted his command post and was ordered to fly due east towards Alaska. Unfortunately, he ran out of fuel while still over Siberia.
In response to his SOS, U.S. F102-A fighters were launched to escort him on his glide back to Alaska, with orders to prevent the MIGs from entering U.S. airspace. The U.S. interceptor aircraft were armed with nuclear missiles, and the pilots could have used any one of them at their own discretion.
World War 3 Close Call No. 1: The Poorly Timed Satellite
Just before 9 a.m. on Oct. 28, 1962, radar operators in Moorestown, New Jersey, informed NORAD that a nuclear attack was under way. A test tape simulating a missile launch from Cuba was being run while, at the same time, a satellite just happened to be passing over the horizon.
Operators reported to NORAD that impact was expected 18 miles west of Tampa at 9:02 a.m.
Under such circumstances, NORAD does not take action until impact has been made.
Since the area nearby Tampa didn't explode that morning, NORAD deemed Moorestown's warning a false alarm.
In the four years he's been following the South China Sea conflict, Money Morning Executive Editor William Patalon, III, has offered a single warning: Any time there's a dispute like this, it only takes one miscommunication, one mistake, one overtly aggressive act… to ignite real shooting.
"As cliché as it sounds," Patalon writes, "emotions are running high in that part of the world."
You see, besides China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines all claim one section or another of the various regions in the South China Sea. And on top of that, the United States is hanging around trying to keep the peace.
With so many countries at loggerheads, including two global powerhouses, it's no wonder the words "World War Three" surface when the South China Sea is discussed…