Five Times The World Was Pushed To The Brink of Nuclear Annihilation

Five Times The World Was Pushed To The Brink of Nuclear Annihilation

Brian - October 6, 2016

Hiroshima August 6th, 1945. A few planes appeared on the horizon shortly after 8 AM. The citizens of Hiroshima, however, paid little attention to the approaching bombers. They were too few in number to be a major concern. Besides, Hiroshima had made it through the war largely unscathed.

Little did the citizens know that their seeming luck concerning bombings was actually because they were a part of a larger experiment. The United States government had purposely spared some cities in Japan from the brunt of bombings so that it could test out a new weapon.

That weapon was the nuclear bomb. As the three B-29s passed over the city center, they dropped one lone bomb from over 30,000 feet in the air. The bomb detonated approximately 1,900 feet above the surface. It was as if the sun had been born upon the earth. Hiroshima was decimated.

Thousands died instantly. Nearly five square miles of the city were leveled, and in total, about 70% of the buildings in the city were destroyed. Quickly, fires swept through the ruins, claiming even more lives. Unbeknown to both Americans and Japanese, radiation poisoning and other long-term effects were also settling in.

Thus began the nuclear age.

Yet while Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the only two times nuclear weapons have been used in war, the world has come close to nuclear war on numerous other occasions. So let’s dig in and find out how close the world has been to the brink.

1. Korean War Almost Went Nuclear

Five Times The World Was Pushed To The Brink of Nuclear Annihilation

The Korean War was the first major war the United States engaged in after World War II. It also marked the first major anti-communist war for America. And it almost became a nuclear war.

Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, the country was forced to give up Korea, a colony it had ruled since 1910. The Soviets immediately established a Communist government in the northern section of Korea. The United States, meanwhile, supported a “free market” government in the southern portion. Both Korean governments, on either side of the 38th parallel, refused to recognize each other and Korea remained in a state of civil war.

Then, on June 25th 1950, North Korea launched an invasion, quickly routing their southern counterparts. South Korea was on the verge of collapse. The United States, with the approval and commitment of the United Nations, came to South Korea’s aid, but the outlook of the war looked grim.

By the end of the summer, the United Nations and South Korean forces were on the verge of defeat. Pushed to a toehold in south eastern Korea, American commanders began to wonder if the conventional war was lost. With defeat seeming to hang in the air, the United States began pondering the nuclear option.

At the time the United States had about 300 nuclear bombs. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had just tested its first basic nuclear bomb and was still not able to deploy them. China was years away from developing and testing nukes.

The nuclear option was thus very much in play. In July of 1950, President Truman ordered nuclear-equipped B-29 bombers to Britain. Although the fissile cores remained in the United States, the planes were ready for quick deployment and were within striking distance of the western portion of the Soviet Union.

At the end of July, the military moved 10 B-29s with nuclear capabilities, but again no cores, to Guam. American leaders were seriously considering a nuclear counter-strike. In theory, the massive shock and awe of the nuclear bombs would decimate North Korean forces. With seemingly few other options on the table, the nuclear war looked all but inevitable to some.

Then, on September 15th, United Nations forces landed at Inchon, about 20 miles outside of Seoul. It was a risky conventional counter-strike, but it paid off. The United Nations forces were able to quickly push back the North Korean forces and retake South Korea. For the North Koreans, it might have appeared a defeat, but it may also have prevented a nuclear war.

Five Times The World Was Pushed To The Brink of Nuclear Annihilation
U-2 photo of Cuban missile sites

2. The Cuban Missile Crisis

From October 16 to 28th the world stood on the verge of nuclear war. The Soviet Union had attempted to install nuclear weapons in Cuba to counter American nuclear weapons in Turkey and Italy, as well as the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Cuba, meanwhile, wanted the Soviet missiles on their soil in order to counter any threats from the United States.

Further, the Soviet Union was looking to counter the major advantage in nuclear armaments enjoyed by the United States. In 1962, the Soviet Union had only 20 or so nuclear missiles capable of being launched from the Soviet Union and striking the United States. On the other hand, the United States had nuclear weapons positioned across Europe, and countless long-range nuclear weapons within the United States.

Cuba seemed like an easy solution but Soviet leaders wondered if their Cuban counterparts would even be open to placing nuclear weapons on the island. However, when a delegation of Soviet military experts arrived in Cuba with an agriculture delegation, they found Cuba’s leaders ready and willing. The Cubans were worried that the United States would launch a full-scale invasion following the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Under extreme secrecy, Soviet soldiers began constructing nuclear missile silos in Cuba. The Soviet Union was so determined to keep the plans secret that they even lied to their own troops, telling them that they were going to a cold climate, and equipping them with cold-weather gear. Meanwhile, Soviet diplomats lied and reassured American diplomats that any weapons placed in Cuba would be defensive in nature.

By August of 1962, the United States was growing wary, believing that the Soviets were up to something more than agricultural development and defensive weapon deployment. Anti-aircraft missile batteries as well as the tens of thousands of Soviets on the ground hinted at something larger. As a result, the United States worked harder to gather intelligence.

On October 14th, a U-2 spy plane took photographs of nuclear missile silos under construction. As a result, the United States scrambled to contain the growing Soviet threat in Cuba. The United States launched a military blockade of Cuba on October 22, publicly announcing it to the world. This blockade meant no more nukes were heading to Cuba. President Kennedy also demanded that the Soviets remove the weapons already present on the island. Meanwhile, American troops massed in Florida, preparing for an invasion.

By October 25th, 14 Soviet ships had already been turned away from Cuba. Just a day later, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev sent President Kennedy a letter, offering to remove the missiles. In exchange, the United States would have to end the blockade, and also remove then-secret missiles from Italy and Turkey, and promise to never invade Cuba without provocation.

On the 27th of October, just as the USA and USSR were hammering out a deal, a U-2 spy plane accidentally crossed into Soviet air space. The plane was unable to use stars to navigate, as planned, and got lost. The Soviets feared it was a bomber and scrambled fighters to intercept the U-2. Meanwhile, the Americans scrambled their own aircraft with nuclear-tipped missiles. Luckily, the U-2 aircraft made it out of Soviet space without incident.

Apparently, an officer in the Air Force also accidentally sent orders to the Okinawa Air Force base to launch nuclear missiles. Luckily, the officer in charge didn’t follow orders blindly and noticed that some things were amiss. The United States wasn’t at DEFCON 1, and the orders came at the end of a weather report. After following up to confirm, it was discovered to be a mistake.

Throughout those tense few days, the nuclear armaments of both the United States and the Soviet Union were ready to be fired within minutes. Had the Soviet ships tried to run the blockage or had Khrushchev not sued for peace, who knows what could have happened?

Read More: 19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Five Times The World Was Pushed To The Brink of Nuclear Annihilation
NORAD space defense 1983

3. The 1979 NORAD Glitch

In the classic Terminator movies, a self-aware computer system launched a nuclear attack against Russia. In response, the Russians launched their nukes against the United States, essentially bringing the world to an end. This sci-fi plot is surprisingly close to a few near-nuclear wars. Only instead of smart computers, dumb computers and humans have been at fault.

On November 9 1979, NORAD raised a false alarm, believing that their computers were showing an incoming nuclear attack. The command center launched fighter jets, dispatched the President’s “Doomsday Plane“, and began to prepare for a counterstrike.

Doomsday planes, by the way, are similar to the normal Air Force One aircraft in service. The biggest difference is that they are equipped to allow the President to continue to run the country in the event of a nuclear war. These aircraft are apparently equipped to withstand nuclear bomb blasts and other catastrophic events.

So yeah, NORAD was pretty serious about the incoming nuclear attack. For everyone in the command center, the world looked like it was on the verge of the apocalypse. Yet when NORAD compared its satellite data to the computer data, it didn’t match up. Calmer minds began questioning things, and after double checking the computers, they realized that a technician had accidentally left a training program running. The entire attack was only a simulation.

The incident did become public knowledge rather quickly, and the Soviet Union expressed concerns over how close an accident almost caused the end of the world. Of course, this incident wouldn’t be the last time a simple mistake nearly lead to the destruction of the world.

Five Times The World Was Pushed To The Brink of Nuclear Annihilation
Civil Defense Siren

4. Soviet Warning System Detects Non-Existent Missiles

Surely the world would have learned from that near miss at NORAD in 1979. If a training tape can push the world to the brink of nuclear war then change must have been a must, right? Yet for all the mistakes humans are prone to make, we’re surprisingly bad at learning from them. In 1983 the world would once again be pushed to the brink of annihilation all over simple glitches and mistakes. Only this time it’d be the Soviet Union that nearly pushed the button.

In the 1980s under Reagan, the United States greatly increased its posture and force in regard to the Soviet Union. The United States conducted a number of operations to test Soviet radar and other capabilities. As a result, the Soviet Union was increasingly on edge, and with the economy declining, Soviet leaders knew they were losing their grip on society.

As a result, the Soviets were already on edge. On September 26th in 1983, when Stanislav Petrov was on duty at an early satellite command center/bunker outside of Moscow. Suddenly, the early warning systems started going off. Petrov saw that an intercontinental ballistic missile was en route from the United States to the USSR. Petrov could have sounded the alarm and possibly set off a nuclear war.

Except, the satellite systems had questionable reliability and there was only one missile inbound. Petrov shrugged it off. Shortly thereafter four more missiles showed up through the early warning system. To Petrov, this didn’t make sense. If the United States was going to launch an attack, they’d almost certainly do so with hundreds of missiles, not one or even five.

Using other detection methods, the Soviets figured out that it was indeed an error, caused by sunlight and high orbit clouds. As a result, a nuclear attack was averted by the sound training and judgment of officer Petrov.

Five Times The World Was Pushed To The Brink of Nuclear Annihilation
Russian Mobile Nuclear Missile

5. Declining Soviets Considered Preemptive Strikes

For a period of time in the 1950s and early 60s, it looked as if the Soviet Union might actually overtake the United States. Yet by the 1970s cracks were starting to emerge in the system, and by the 1980s the Soviet Union was falling far behind the USA. Further, when Reagan came into office in 1981, his aggressive rhetoric only increased tensions.

The Soviets devised an elaborate computer system to compare Soviet strength to the United States. The system considered a huge range of factors. Soviet leaders made the decision that if Soviet power should ever fall below 40%, they would have to consider a preemptive strike. By the 1980s the metric had dropped to 45%.

In November of 1983, the United States and its allies launched a massive military exercise “Able Archer”. This exercise was seen by many within the Soviet Union as a potential cover for a preemptive strike. Soviet forces prepared to launch a massive attack of their own, but decided to wait for the USA to make the first move. Luckily, it was just an exercise.

Interestingly, even as the Soviets mobilized in response to the threat, the Americans held firm. Most American leaders believed that the Soviet Union was trying to make its own show of force and intimidation. At the time, many military leaders didn’t realize how weakened the Soviet Union really was, and how desperate it was becoming. As such, the USA and its allies continued with their war games, nearly provoking a nuclear war.

Ultimately, it was a huge miscalculation on the part of American leaders. While the United States was busy making an elaborate show of force, the Soviet Union was already sinking into collapse. Its economy was highly unproductive, and its technology was falling farther and farther behind. The Soviets were thus scared and the upper echelon’s power was slowly waning.