Perhaps you’ve heard the legend of Harry Shoup. The gruff Air Force colonel stood watch on December night 60 years ago, in a secure bunker at Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), guarding against a nuclear strike. On his desk sat the Red Phone, connecting him directly to the four-star general at Strategic Air Command. Suddenly, the phone rang.
Colonel Shoup answered. “Is this Santa Claus?” asked a child’s voice. Rather than break a child’s heart, Colonel Shoup played along. Sears, it turned out, had published a newspaper ad, with a jolly Saint Nick urging, “Call me on my private phone, and I will talk to you personally.” Because of a typo, the ad accidentally listed the number for the Red Phone. As calls kept pouring in, Colonel Shoup assigned his staff to play Santa. They began to provide children with updates on the location of Santa’s sleigh. And the NORAD Santa Tracker was born.
The inspirational holiday tale is retold by countless outlets each December. If it had been the plot of a Capra film, The New York Times’ Michael Beschloss wrote last week, “moviegoers might have thought the story contrived.” It sounds too good to be true. And, as it happens, it almost certainly is.
The first clue is that the Santa Tracker takes its place in a long military tradition of keeping track of Saint Nick, using press releases to cultivate favorable coverage. At the height of the Second World War, Eisenhower’s headquarters put out a release offering “Christmas guidance” to war correspondents. It confirmed that “a new North Pole Command has been formed,” that “Santa Claus is directing operations,” and that “he has under his command a small army of gnomes.” The censors, though, suppressed the location of Santa’s headquarters, directed that his delivery methods be described only as employing “secret devices” or “special scientific techniques,” and proscribed “any mention of radar or speculation on the purpose of reindeer antennae.”