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DEFCON means Defense Readiness Condition and was strictly a military matter in the early years, but now a raised DEFCON level has become pop-culture shorthand for a situation that needs prompt, even extreme action. Here's a list of movie and TV shows that reference DEFCON levels, (not always correctly!)
What's “high?” Begin with this: the lower the DEFCON level, the higher the worry. DEFCON Five is peacetime, while DEFCON One is about preparing for imminent war. Hiking the DEFCON level activates a stack of pre-scripted plans intended for quick execution. It's comparable to “battle stations” on a warship facing combat, which tells each sailor to jump to a memorized set of actions: as in, put on helmet and flak jacket, go to this station, close the watertight hatches, and stand by for orders.
Unlike the widely derided terror color-codes adopted by Homeland Security shortly after the September 11 attacks, DEFCON levels are primarily for the military eyes and thus not the subject of press briefings beforehand. But the Cold War saw a multitude of DEFCON alerts and the evidence left behind tells us a good deal about the scripted procedures then in effect. Four alerts took effect across US forces worldwide, the most famous being the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there were at least a dozen smaller-scale ones called at the theater or regional level.
Begin with this: DEFCON levels are about readiness for war, not about fighting one. Were war to come to the homeland, more obscure alerts would come into play. (A presidential declaration of an “air defense emergency,” for example, amounts to DEFCON Zero. Enemy aircraft or missiles would be coming in, and war would be underway.)
The idea of a graded scale indicating combat readiness goes back at least to World War I. Such scales commonly had rungs that shifted gradually from peacetime conditions, first by raising the supply of equipment and troops (say, by canceling all weekend leaves); next, shifted materiel to the front and watched for sneak attacks; and finally, dug in for combat.
While that seems simple enough, confusion over numbers and their meaning help explain confusion at the command level just before December 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor. Our army and navy each had a three-rung readiness scale, but they used opposite numbering schemes: as fear of war went up, the Army's number scale also went up, and the Navy's went down.
Confusion about the conduct of alerts continued well into the Fifties, along with false alarms such as one nationwide “Yellow Alert” in May 1955 when air defense confused a formation of B-47 bombers as Soviet bombers. Following communication mixups during a joint military air-defense exercise called Top Hand in late 1958, the following year the US and Canada agreed to five “defense readiness conditions,” or DEFCONs. This would help clarify when, for example, US commanders had permission to send nuclear-armed aircraft into Canadian territory.
If there's interest, I'll add more DEFCON history in a later post.