When the DEFCON Warning System was founded more than 38 years ago, the world was divided between two great rivals of immense power and boundless determination. It was a saga of two legendary enemies fiercely vying for dominance, and even struggling for the right to exist. The United States and Soviet Union saw an existential threat in one another, and the only thing separating the two was the infamous Iron Curtain.
Prominent in the minds of many Americans and Soviets alike was the very real and imminent threat of total nuclear annihilation. In those times, mutual destruction lurked around every corner, and matters were only made worse by the sheer terror of it all, and by the resulting incorrigible paranoia. When The System went live in 1984, the world had only narrowly averted a third world war just a year before, thanks to the events surrounding Able Archer.
The American and Soviet people may have been paranoid, but for good reason. The end of the world really was always just a moment away, or at least it was as far as the public knew. At any minute of any day those sirens might start blaring, and that would probably be the citizen’s first and last warnings that something had gone wrong. That it was over.
This was unacceptable to DEFCON Warning System’s Director, Thomas Lonely Wolf, then an amateur analyst. The World Wide Web hadn’t been invented yet. News and information on the nuclear threat was slow and hard to come by. Newspapers were written overnight and distributed in the early morning, and television news was a six o’clock event. Up-to-date information was a very rare commodity. The Soviets were truly the devil in the dark.
“People were slaves to a very narrow corridor of information,” Director Lonely Wolf said. “Just a year before, the television movie The Day After came out and the public consciousness was keenly aware of the prospect of nuclear war but knew very little about it.” Like today, most Americans understood the implications of Moscow’s nuclear-armed bombers patrolling NATO borders, but the nuances of Full Spectrum Dominance escaped public scrutiny, as did the subtlety of economic and information warfare.
“The war was not actually fought on the battlefield,” Lonely Wolf explained, “geopolitics rather than the military general dictated whether a third of the world was going to wake up the next morning. A lot of that took place beyond the radar of the public.” The American government had a very firm understanding of what was happening in the world at any given moment. US intelligence worked feverishly to collect information about America’s nemesis, and experts were constantly assessing that information, estimating implications and projecting outcomes. They plotted the present and predicted the future, but Cold War secrecy and National Security prevented any meaningful real-time assessment of the threat from ever reaching the public.
“Admitting war was a possibility could signal to an enemy that they had better strike first before defenses could be set up or a first strike launched against them,” the Director affirmed. With operational security paramount to continuity, transparency couldn’t be maintained. The public was left uninformed about the present, and uncertain about the future. The government had its system, but that system didn’t report to the public. The American people needed their own warning system. “It is out of this need that the DEFCON Warning System was born. It is a barometer of the nuclear threat. If someone can’t or won’t recognize the danger approaching, perhaps they may if a third party says something.”
Intelligence gathering might have seemed an enterprise exclusive to James Bond, but Director Lonely Wolf was determined to know what was happening. He and his staff surfed the web before there was a web. They crawled through the headlines in newspaper after newspaper, painstakingly reviewing and documenting relevant segments of television and radio news, and studied as much as possible of the news and information publicly available, both foreign and domestic. Sources were acquired, connections were made, information was assessed, projections were plotted, and concerned parties were briefed. They were warned, with The DEFCON Warning System.
“Sources were few and far between,” says Director Lonely Wolf. “It was more about reading between the lines. What was reported, what was bluster. What was propaganda. And what wasn’t being said more so than what was being said is how we tried to determine how close we were to the unthinkable.”
Never having a staff greater than twenty members, Director Lonely Wolf built an organization to provide timely and reliable analysis to the public. Everyone was a concerned party, because everyone would suffer the consequences if the right action was wrongly misinterpreted, or if the Cold War otherwise turned hot. Backed by his exhaustive information gathering and unimpeachable analysis trusted by tens of thousands of concerned Americans today, Lonely Wolf built a solid reputation, an essential organization, and at a critical time.
Americans concerned about the looming nuclear threat could take comfort in the fact that the first and only warning didn’t have to come in the form of screaming sirens. The System which Director Lonely Wolf built would keep them informed, and it would warn them of any increased degrees of threat. Like today, status updates were transmitted monthly and whenever events called for a change in alert level. Unlike today, the original warning system was a phone on the director’s desk.
“Technology changed and information became more available,” Director Lonely Wolf explained. “Today we can reach out to every corner of the globe and see what is happening beyond that original ‘corridor of information’ that was so limiting in the eighties.”
The organization has evolved tremendously over the decades, shifting from reliance on the analog telecommunications of the eighties to a distribution and information collection medium powered by modern technology. The quantity of information being gathered for analysis has also grown staggering since those early days. Though the task remains harrowing, the necessity is as crucial in today’s Cold War 2 as it was in the original.
The DEFCON Warning System has grown under the director’s tenure, but the mission remains the same: to provide the public with news and analysis on the nuclear threat against the United States, and an alert code based on current events.