War is an unfortunate part of human history. Try as we might to end it for good, humanity has thus far only accomplished the temporary suspension of such a heinous act. Over the years, decades and centuries technology has made war smarter, but also more dangerous. With the advent of nuclear weapons there has been an uneasy peace between the regional and global heavyweights, thus they have resorted to smaller proxies to do their bidding. Regardless of the absence of another World War, WMD’s have made the prospect of war apocalyptic. Since the first detonation in 1945 nine nations possess nuclear weapons, this article will explore different events in history that nearly led to a nuclear confrontation.
5. 1973 Yom Kippur War
This is a relatively tame incident of a near nuclear confrontation as both the USSR and The United States backed off rather easily. In 1973, to avenge the humiliating defeat of the Six Day War to Israel in 1967, Arab armies once again decided to invade the Jewish State and defeat it. For once the Israelis were caught completely unawares and with supreme difficulty halted and even reversed the Egyptian and Syrian attacks on both fronts. Seeking to punish the Arabs for another transgression, Israel bombed Damascus, hitting a Soviet cultural house in the process. To make matters worse, the Israeli Airforce also fired on a Soviet ship off the coast of Syria. Not one to tolerate such attacks the Soviet Union beefed up its presence and looked as if it was ready to strike at Israel. The latter’s ally, the United States sent its own forces into the area and a brief stand off ensued. Fortunately, both superpowers saw the futility of such antics and stood down.
4. North Korean bombardment of Yeonpyeong
The North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong should not have come as a surprise to anyone. It is a rogue regime that tries to thumb the rest of the world in the eye. Why? Well, because it sort of can….since 2006 it has acquired nuclear weapons capabilities. What made this particular incident a near apocalyptic one was that it was one of the most serious ones since the end of the Korean war in 1953 and the first serious confrontation since the North acquired nukes. Had South Korea retaliated more sternly it could have descended into full scale war. With 50,000 American troops stationed in South Korea, an all out war would have North Korea and the U.S. trading nuclear shots at one another. The North feels like a cornered animal, a pariah to the whole world. Its nukes are the only insurance they have in not getting invaded. Thankfully, the Yeonpyeong incident did not escalate further.
3. 1983 NATO-USSR standoff
This incident is less well known due to the fact that it remained classified. Known under the code name Able Archer 83, NATO troops began a large scale exercise that involved the addition of 20,000 U.S. troops and a simulated DEFCON-1 nuclear alert. Unfortunately, NATO had failed to properly notify the Soviets of such a large scale exercise. The USSR politburo perceived these massive troop movements as a possible nuclear first strike against them. In return, they beefed up defenses in Poland and East Germany and put their nuclear forces on heightened alert. The fact that relations had deteriorated between the two superpowers over various preceding incidents did not help the situation. Fortunately for the sake of humanity, cooler heads prevailed yet again and both sides de-escalated the tense stand off when the military exercises concluded.
2. 2001–2002 India–Pakistan standoff
India and Pakistan are relative newcomers to the nuclear arena, but that certainly hasn’t stopped them from having several showdowns with one another. Having fought three wars against one another in 1965, 1971 and 1999, both nations have now resorted to plan B; the use of proxies. The case of the territory of Kashmir is a sore point for both nations, as both lay claim to all of it. Due to the fact that they both possess nuclear weapons, the conventional wars of the past are out. Thus the aforementioned proxies come in, so far Pakistan with the smaller military has been the more aggressive user of proxies, usually militant Islamic groups that its Intelligence service the ISI uses to conduct high profile attacks on Indian soil. With the protection of plausible deniability, such groups are considered a strategic asset for Pakistan. Although in December 2001, they nearly became a permanent liability. On December 13th 2001, five Islamist militants attacked the Indian parliament in New Delhi, killing seven people before being shot dead themselves by guards. India immediately blamed Pakistan and mobilized its military for war, Pakistan responding in kind. Both nations moving nuclear weapons on their shared border. With the mediating of the U.S. and Russia, India and Pakistan came to their senses and yet another possibility of nuclear war was averted.
1. Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
The most well known near Nuclear miss has been that of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The situation was already made tense with the Communist revolution in Cuba under the leadership of Fidel Castro, and the subsequent CIA covert operation to depose Castro. In response, Castro built strong ties with the Soviet Union and welcomed a Soviet military presence in his country. This naturally made the United States nervous and in a series of even more escalating tensions, U.S. spy planes uncovered photographic evidence that the Soviets were storing nuclear weapons in Cuba. When confronted with the evidence, the Soviets demanded America withdraw its nuclear missiles from its NATO bases in Turkey.
When both nations refused to withdraw from their entrenched positions a period now famously dubbed 13 days ensued. This was the closest the world came to a nuclear confrontation between America and the USSR. Eventually, Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev relented to President Kennedy’s demands and withdrew the missiles from Cuba, and in return President Kennedy removed U.S. missiles from Turkey. The doomsday clock remained stuck at five past…..for the moment.