Since the end of the Second World War, the world has lived in varying degrees of fear of nuclear war. The use of two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the level of destruction these weapons can bring to civilization. Seeing their potential and fearing being left behind by their adversaries, various world powers began developing and stockpiling an array of the highly destructive weapons. Of course, the two main players during this period were the United States and Soviet Union. The two built thousands of nuclear weapons which included bombs, artillery rounds, torpedoes and ICBMs based in silos and submarines. Thankfully, the two never met on a battlefield over the following decades and the era became known as the Cold War.
While the Cold War never became ‘hot,’ there are many incidents of accidents, near-disasters and close calls with full-out nuclear war on both sides of the fence. This shouldn’t really come as a shock to anyone looking back. First, each side had thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other. Second, the opposing governments distrusted one another and operated in an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and suspicion. Third, neither side enjoyed backing down or losing face during tense situations. Finally, the technology, especially early on, was never fool-proof or 100% reliable which caused false alarms, failures and communications breakdowns at some of the most dangerous times.
The following list looks at 10 of the closest calls the human race has had with all-out nuclear war. These are just the official or leaked stories and do not include many more events that are likely un-released or classified concerning the near annihilation of our planet. These don’t even include the many accidents involving nuclear weapons. You’ll see how many simple errors or poorly timed decisions almost started a nuclear war only to be stopped by some quick and logical thinking of an individual or group of leaders.
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10 The Suez Crisis – November, 1956
In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, following months of worsening relations with the Western nations, nationalized the Suez control, effectively placing it under Egyptian control. In response, Israel, Britain and France invaded to retake the canal and place it back under Western control. Amidst all the military action and the tense atmosphere, NORAD detected a series of events which indicated a possible Soviet strike. A Russian fleet was detected moving into the Mediterranean Sea, dozens of Russian MIG fighters were detected over Syria, a British bomber had disappeared and been presumed shot-down and unidentified aircraft were flying over Turkey. With the alert level heightened, an explanation for all of these events was quickly found. The Russian fleet was undergoing a routine exercise, the MIGs were a normal sized flight whose size was exaggerated, the British bomber had landed for repairs and the unidentified planes over Turkey was a large flock of swans.
9 SAC-NORAD Communications Failure – November, 1961
During the Cold War, the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) kept in close communication with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). This was so SAC’s B-52 bombers could be launched for a strike at the first warning of a possible Soviet attack. On November 24th, 1961, the leadership of SAC found itself cut off from all communication with NORAD. Since a number of redundant communication methods had reportedly been put in place, it seemed unlikely everything could have failed at once. SAC leadership, believing this was the indication of a massive first-strike by the Soviet Union, prepared their bombers for action. Fortunately the order to attack was never given. It was quickly discovered that there was no attack occurring and that all of the supposedly redundant communication systems had failed because they all relied on one specific relay station which had suffered a breakdown.
8 The Bear Incident at Volk Field – October 25th, 1962
Occuring from the 14th to the 28th of October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a time of extremely high tension between the USA and USSR created over the deployment of ICBMs to Cuba. Within the larger crisis there were a number of smaller events which nearly caused nuclear forces to be deployed. One of these events happened on the night of the 25th of October when a guard at a Minnesota airfield fired shots at what appeared to be an intruder climbing the fence. Alarms were sounded at neighboring bases including the Volk Field in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the alarm at Volk Field had been wired incorrectly and instead the alarm to scramble the nuclear equipped fighters was given. Assuming war with the USSR had started, the planes prepared for action. Fortunately, the airfield commanders were quick to call off the flight – all started by what turned out to be a bear climbing a fence in Minnesota.
7 Spy-Plane Violates Soviet Airspace – October 26th, 1962
Throughout much of the Cold War, high-altitude reconnaissance flights of Soviet and other East-Bloc nations was a regular occurrence. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, flights over Soviet territory by U2 aircraft were prohibited for fear of escalating an already bad situation. In any event, an American U2 flight over the Artic ended up off course after some navigational errors, placing it in Soviet airspace. The Soviets scrambled a number of interceptors to bring down the spy-plane to which the Americans responded by scrambling a number of theirs to protect the U2. The American fighters were reportedly equipped with nuclear missiles whose use was at the discretion of the pilots. Amazingly, the Soviets backed off and no nuclear weapons were used in what surely would have made a tense situation catastrophic.
6 Nuclear Torpedo Near-Incident – October 27th, 1962
While the Cuban Missile Crisis witnessed a number of close calls in the air, what was happening on and under the waves was no different. On October 27th, the Russian submarine B-59 was detected by an American task force in the Caribbean. In order to force the submarine to surface and identify itself, the US force dropped practice depth-charges. Having had no contact with the leadership in the USSR and fearing war had started, the officers of B-59 decided to launch a nuclear torpedo to destroy the US fleet. Amidst the chaos, one officer, Vasili Arkhipov, refused to allow the use of a nuclear weapon. Fortunately, Soviet doctrine required unanimous decision before using nuclear weapons and Arkhipov’s disagreement saved the sub, the US fleet and, potentially, the world from nuclear war.
5 B-52 Crash in Greenland, January, 1968
On January 21st, 1968 a B-52 conducting a routine deterrence patrol near Greenland caught fire and crashed. The bomber, which crashed just several miles from an early-warning station, was carrying a load of nuclear weapons. The fire and explosion of the bomber damaged the weapons. At the time, these nuclear weapons required conventional explosives to begin the nuclear chain reaction. Reports indicate that there was, in fact, partial detonation of the explosives in the warheads. Miraculously, the explosion did not trigger the nuclear material and catastrophe was averted. Had the bomb(s) detonated so close to an early-warning station, it is more than likely the event would have been interpreted as a first-strike by the Soviet Union on NORAD’s early warning system.
4 Failure at NORAD – 1979/80
In November 1979 and June 1980, mistakes and failures by computers indicated that the USA was under attack by Soviet Forces. The first time, a training program had been run which made it appear as though a missile strike had been launched. Panic was reportedly so widespread among the leadership that the President’s airborne command aircraft took off without him. In 1980, a faulty chip and wiring in one of the computers resulted in the system indicating that numerous Soviet missiles were being launched. While bombers and Minuteman ICBMs were readied for launch, analysts fortunately decided to take a look at sensor and satellite information – all of which came back negative. It was not the last false alarm as a few days later it all happened again. This prompted technicians to look at the computers and find the source of phantom nuclear attacks.
3 False Alarm in the Soviet Union – September, 1983
It wasn’t only American computers and equipment which were prone to error. On September 26th, 1983 a Soviet radar operator watched as his instruments reported an American ICBM launch. Though worried and caught off-guard by the ‘surprise’ launch of several missiles, the Soviet operator, Stanislav Petrov, thought it strange that an American strike would be so small. For him, the strike didn’t make sense given everyone believed a nuclear exchange would involve hundreds of missiles. Petrov opted to forego standard operational procedures and wait several minutes before reporting the launch to his superiors. In the meantime, he checked other radar sites to see if the launch was in fact real. Ultimately, it was discovered that the orbit of the Russian early-detection satellite combined with the cloud cover and angle of the sunlight had created the false reports which could have led to potential nuclear war if the information had been passed on earlier.
2 Exercise Able Archer 83 – November, 1983
Just a couple months after the close call by Soviet missile defenses, NATO decided it would be a good time to launch a large scale practice/simulation of its nuclear forces' readiness. The geniuses in charge clearly didn’t realize such an exercise was poorly timed and would literally poke the bear. Exercise Able Archer 83 saw the NATO nations simulate going from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1 and dramatically increasing their codes communications. Of course, Soviet intelligence and KGB agents went crazy reporting what they were seeing. Soviet leadership long believed that a pre-emptive nuclear strike would come under the guise of a “practice” or exercise. In response, aircraft and missiles were readied to be launched. The exercise ended on the 11th of November and with it, Soviet anxiety and alert levels dropped back to normal.
1 The Norwegian Rocket Incident – January, 1995
With the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation decreased dramatically. That said, accidents and misinterpretations can still happen. On January 25th, 1995 Russian radar operations flew into a panic when their screens indicated a hostile incoming missile had been launched. The missile was following the pathway typical of a submarine-launched missile and its trajectory put it on a general course for Moscow. Russian President Boris Yeltsin was alerted and the briefcase which enables the use of Russian nuclear weapons was delivered. According to reports, Russian nuclear forces were ready to launch an immediate retaliation and it was only after several tense minutes that it became obvious the missile was heading away from Russia. The missile was in fact a rocket which had been launched by Norwegian and American scientists to examine the atmosphere. Prior warning had been given to all nations but had not been passed on to the Russian radar operators.
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