Dr. Brzezinski’s 3:00 AM Phone Call

As James Joyner noted this morning, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Adviser to President Carter, died last night at the age of 89. It’s worth noting the role that Dr. Brzezinski played in averting what could have been a potential disaster. Former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the story in his book, From the Shadows:  

“As he recounted it to me, Brzezinski was awakened at three in the morning by [military assistant William] Odom, who told him that some 250 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President’s decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes …. Thus he told Odom he would stand by for a further call to confirm Soviet launch and the intended targets before calling the President. Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back and told Odom to confirm that the Strategic Air Command was launching its planes. When Odom called back, he reported that … 2,200 missiles had been launched—it was an all-out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to call the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system.”

This happened on November 9, 1979, just days after a group of Iranian militants had taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and begun a hostage crisis that would last until Carter left office in 1981. It also happened just over a month before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. One can only imagine the thoughts that went through Brzezinski’s head in those moments between the initial call and the confirmation that it was a false alarm.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, National Security, , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Mr. Bluster says:
  2. Janis Gore says:

    3 am call in this administration is likely to be Trump asking “whassup?”

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Janis Gore: More like, “Where’s my phone? I need to tweet something!”