Today in History: Sept. 26

For the first time in U.S. history, the two major party nominees for President of the United States debated on this date in 1960. It was also the first time the two nominees would be seen together on television.

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon met in Chicago; the two held three more debates through the fall that year. Howard K. Smith moderated.

Senator Kennedy had spent the day preparing for the debate with close aides and then rested. The Vice President had not prepared, was recovering from the flu, and, perhaps worse, re-injured one of his knees on the way to the studio. (The swelling had just gone down when he banged it in into his car door.) Nixon refused makeup and did not shave just before the debate, so his 5 o’clock shadow stood out under the hot TV studio lights, as did his heavy sweating, which was caused by either his flu, the pain from his knee, or the heat from the lights.

Between 65 million and 70 million viewers tuned in to the first debate. The viewer numbers dropped for the subsequent three debates, which helped Kennedy: when the reviews came in the next day, he was declared the winner of the first debate, in part because he looked “tanned, rested, and ready,” to use a phrase that came to be associated (in a tongue in cheek fashion) with Nixon.

The video of the first debate:

* * * *
There will be a debate tonight between the two major party candidates for president.

* * * *
On this date in 1983, the United States did not fire a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile at the Soviet Union. The U.S. did not fire several other missiles shortly after it did not fire that first one, either.

The Soviet Union’s early warning system, built to detect one thing and one thing only, a nuclear attack from the U.S. and/or its allies, detected that attack on September 26, 1983, however. This was unknown to the U.S. Also unknown at the time, that the Soviet Union’s official policy was “mutual assured destruction”: anything perceived as an attack, even the warning of an attack, would lead immediately to a full nuclear counterattack.

The computer programs were written to launch the attack once an attack had been detected. A lieutenant colonel, Stanislav Petrov, was the officer on duty at the early warning center near Moscow. He chose to dismiss the warning of an attack. He reasoned that if such a serious attack was being launched, the U.S. was not going to fire just one single missile. It had to be an error. He manually overrode the programs and his years of training and judged it a false alarm. If he was wrong, by the time radar would detect the missile, it was going to be too late.

Several minutes later, the alarms went off again. Four missiles had been “spotted” by the satellite in orbit. Again Petrov reasoned, any real attack from the U.S. would be massive, not one missile followed by four more. He judged the warning a false alarm.

The story did not become public knowledge until after the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1990s. I am able to write this, and you are able to read it, 33 years later, in no small part due to Stanislav Petrov’s insightful guess that nothing was happening.

* * * *
Paul Newman died on this date in 2008.

* * * *
T. S. Eliot was born on this date in 1888. George Gershwin was born on this date in 1898.

Gershwin “recorded” piano rolls for player pianos to play. Here is his own piano roll, in other words, Gershwin himself playing his Rhapsody in Blue:

Jack LaLanne was born 102 years ago today. Marty Robbins was born on this date in 1925. Donna Douglas was born on this date in 1932. Lynn Anderson was born on this date in 1947.

* * * *
Philip Bosco is 86 today. Bryan Ferry is 71 today. Mary Beth Hurt is 70. Olivia Newton-John is 68. Jane Smiley is 67 today. Linda Hamilton is 60. Will Self is 55. Jim Caviezel is 48. Serena Williams is 35 today.

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  1. Pleasant Street · September 26, 2016

    Thank you for sharing this. I wish I had been there, only I was not born 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous · September 26, 2016

    Well, I always learn new things here. I’m sorry I can’t visit you more often, Mark! I didn’t know the missile story at all, and I didn’t realize that there’s a precedent for the date of today’s debate, and that it was the infamous ‘sweaty Nixon versus good-looking Kennedy debate’! Let’s hope that Trump looks like Nixon (if not worse) tonight . . . [since it has been such a breeze for him to show his incompetency, racism, and misogny so far]!

    Liked by 1 person

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