Historical close calls
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, an apocalyptic war between the United States and USSR was considered likely. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 is generally thought to be the historical point at which the risk of World War III was closest. Other potential starts have included the following (see External links below for further examples):
* July 26th, 1956 – March, 1957 — Suez Crisis: the conflict pitted Egypt against an alliance between the French Fourth Republic, the United Kingdom and Israel. The USSR threatened to intervene on behalf of Egypt, the US became afraid of a larger war, and persuaded the British and French to withdraw.
* October 24, 1973 — As the Yom Kippur War was winding down, a Soviet threat to intervene on Egypt's behalf caused the United States to go to DEFCON 3.
* November 9, 1979, when the US made emergency retaliation preparations after NORAD saw on-screen indications that a full-scale Soviet attack had been launched. No attempt was made to use the "red telephone" hotline to clarify the situation with the USSR and it was not until early-warning radar systems confirmed no such launch had taken place that NORAD realised that a computer system test had caused the display errors. A Senator at NORAD at the time described an atmosphere of absolute panic. A GAO investigation led to the construction of an off-site test facility, to prevent similar mistakes subsequently. A fictionalized version of this incident was filmed as the movie WarGames, in which the test system is inadvertently triggered by a teenage hacker believing himself to be playing a video game.
* September 26, 1983, when Soviet early warning system showed that a US ICBMs attack had been launched. Colonel Stanislav Petrov, in command of the monitoring facility put the warning down to computer error and did not notify his superiors, who would have most probably launched a counter-attack.
* November 1983: Exercise Able Archer — The USSR mistook a test of NATO's nuclear-release procedures as a fake cover for a NATO attack and subsequently raised its nuclear alert level. It was not until afterwards that the US realized how close it had come to nuclear war. At the time of the exercise the Soviet Politburo was without a healthy functioning head due to the failing health of then leader Yuri Andropov, which is thought to have been one of the contributing factors to the Soviet paranoia over the exercise.
* January 25, 1995, when Russia almost launched a nuclear attack after a Norwegian missile launch for scientific research was detected from Spitzbergen and thought to be an attack on Russia, launched five minutes from Moscow. Norway had notified the world that it would be making the launch, but the Russian Defense Ministry had neglected to notify those monitoring Russia's nuclear defense systems.
In addition to the above there are two other points during the Cold War that may have resulted in world war. These, however, are not generally listed as they do not relate to the United States-Soviet Union rivalry, but rather the events following the Sino-Soviet Split of 1960. The ideological split between Maoist communists (represented primarily by China) and Stalinist communists (represented primarily by the Soviet Union) divided the entire communist movement worldwide — which controlled governments or significant rebel factions on most continents. Thus a war between China and the Soviet Union may well have resulted in world war, whilst not necessarily involving the U.S. and the capitalist west (although the U.S. may have opportunistically intervened whilst its two communist rivals were distracted by war with each other). The two points the communist powers almost entered into all-out war were:
* March, 1969, when border clashes broke out between Soviet and Chinese troops over Zhen Bao Island in the Ussuri River. In total the Soviets suffered about 90 casualties to the 800 for the Chinese. At the time there were almost one and a half million troops deployed along the border.
* 1978 and 1979, in which the pro-Soviet Vietnam invaded the pro-China Cambodia and removed Pol Pot. China in turn invaded Vietnam in retaliation and the Soviets denounced this action strongly, although it fell short of taking action. The next year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the Chinese claimed this was a continuation of a strategy of encircling China with Soviet allies that had begun the previous year with the invasion of Cambodia.
Some examples of close calls are more rhetorical than real. In 1999 NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, ordered British Army Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson to hinder Russian troops from occupying the Pristina airport during the Kosovo War, "if necessary with military force"; Jackson refused to carry out the order with the words: "I won't start World War III for you!" (link)
von Neumann said it was "absolutely certain (1) that there would be a nuclear war; and (2) that everyone would die in it" (underline added to quote from: The Nature of the Physical Universe – 1979, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0471031909, in H. Putnam’s essay The place of facts in a world of values - page 113). This example illustrates why respectable scientists are very reluctant to go on record with extinction predictions: they can never be proven right. (The quotation is repeated by Leslie (1996) on page 26, on the subject of nuclear war annihilation, which he still considered a significant risk – in the mid 1990s.)(link)
Many people, including many of the scientists involved in the bomb project, were shocked by the devastation that the bombs produced, reports of which filtered into the United States over time. The pride which Oppenheimer had felt after the successful "Trinity" test was soon replaced by guilt and horror. "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish," he later famously said, "the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose." Los Alamos was awarded the Army-Navy "Excellence" Award shortly thereafter, and in his acceptance speech for the lab, Oppenheimer warned that:
"If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people of this world must unite or they will perish."(link)
In 1945, our collective state of mind was despair. World War II touched every inhabitable continent, leaving more than 50 million dead and millions of others as refugees. The conflict had spanned more than half a decade. It would effectively end during an interval of 43 seconds--the time it took for the atomic bomb to explode over Hiroshima after it was released by the Enola Gay on August 6. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, followed by Japan's surrender.
Sixty years later, we live in a world where the capacity for mass destruction is no longer limited to superpowers--or, for that matter, to nations. Our collective state of mind is one of vulnerability. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not just historical events but portents of a possible future for any city, anywhere. And it is through that lens that we find ourselves looking back at the decision of President Harry S. Truman and its legacy.(link) 1. Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 2. Doomsday device 3. Effects of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear War 4. Example Scenarios 5. Hiroshima victims 6. Harry S. Truman 7. Human extinction 8. John von Neumann9. Nuclear summer 10. Nuclear Test Image Gallery 11.Nuclear Warfare 12. Nuclear weapon13. Nuclear winter14. Online Resources about Nuclear Weapons 15. Robert Oppenheimer16. Terror of the Atomic Bomb - Hiroshima and Nagasaki17. World War III
IMAGES (from top):
- The mushroom cloud of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, 1945(link)
- Hiroshima: the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, in the upper portion of the photograph, was the aim point for the Enola Gay.(link)
- Human bones scattered across the ground in the wake of the atomic bomb of Hiroshima.(link)
- Human remains left by a victim of the atomic attack on Nagasaki.(link)
- Fused Lump from Hiroshima Containing Human Bones exposed to super-high temperature fires(link 1)(link 2: SEE Peace Memorial Museum-West Building-The Fury of the Conflagration-Looking at the List)