False Nuclear Alert Message | Prairie Public Broadcasting

False Nuclear Alert Message

Feb 20, 2020

Vague fears of nuclear war can lurk like green monsters hiding under the bed. In 1945, the grim destructive power of atomic weapons became clear at Hiroshima.

After Russia built atomic bombs in 1949, fears of nuclear war led to fallout shelters and Civil Defense brochures entitled “Survival in a Nuclear Attack.”

By the 1960s, NORAD radars watched for Russian bombers and later even missiles. If war began, the President would activate the Emergency Broadcast System, which could interrupt regular TV and radio programs for vital civil-defense information.

Radio and television stations regularly broadcasted test warnings, opening with an urgent “attention signal:” URR—URR—URR, followed by the words: “This is a test.”

That was how it was supposed to work. However, on this date in 1971, Les Maupin, broadcaster at Minot’s KLPM-Radio, was startled to find this message on the Associated Press teletype-ticker: “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION DIRECTED BY THE PRESIDENT. NORMAL BROADCASTING WILL CEASE IMMEDIATELY. MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS/HATEFULNESS.”

Immediately, KLPM and specially designated stations across the country stayed on the air, while other stations, went silent.

For breathless minutes, Minot’s citizens looked skyward for impending doom, knowing the Minot Air Force Base was a likely target, only 15 miles from town. One citizen said: “My heart just stopped. I thought the bomb was coming.”

Relief came when a second emergency bulletin appeared on the Associated Press ticker: “CANCEL MESSAGE SENT AT 09:33 . . . REPEAT CANCEL . . . AUTHENICATOR: IMPISH/IMPISH.”

What in the world had happened? Investigators discovered that W.S. Eberhardt, who was on-duty at the National Warning Center, inadvertently blundered by grabbing the “actual warning tape” for the teletype rather than the typical “test” tape.

Usually, only the “White House can order release of such an emergency notification,” therefore, President Richard Nixon ordered an investigation of the dangerous flub.

Investigators instructed the National Warning Center to place the “actual warning tape” inside a desk drawer five feet from the transmitter, rather than right next to the “test tape.”

It was a long 18 minutes for North Dakota radio listeners who feared that nuclear annihilation might be imminent.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department

Sources:

“2 Errors Compound Radio Alert Mix-Up,” Greeley [CO] Daily Tribune, February 20, 1971; and “Pentagon, FCC Seek Way to Prevent False Alerts,” Bismarck Tribune, February 22, 1971, p. 3; “Broadcaster Cites Code Word Lack,” Bismarck Tribune, February 22, 1971, p. 3.

“Alert Wasn’t For Real,” Greeley [CO] Daily Tribune, February 20, 1971, p. 19.

“Emergency ‘Alert’ Scares Radio, Television Audience,” Chicago Tribune, February 21, 1971, p. 1.

Clarence Petersen, “If Missiles Fly, Who’ll Believe It,” Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1971, p. 29.

“A Blunder Worth Thinking About,” Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1971, p. 12.

“Act to Halt Recurrence of ‘Alert,’” Chicago Tribune, February 22, 1971, p. 21.

“Survival In A Nuclear Attack,” https://www.nps.gov/articles/coldwar_civildefense_rockefellerandcivildefense.htm, accessed on January 9, 2020.