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  • Dan Connors

Nukes- close calls when the world almost ended

"Any fool can start a war, and once he's done so, even the wisest of men are helpless to stop it - especially if it's a nuclear war."- Nikita Khrushchev

"Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind." John F. Kennedy

In August of 1945, two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombs, developed in a secret program during the war, were able to wipe out over half of the cities, with deaths in the six figure range and radiation poisoning that lingered for generations. The power and devastation of these bombs was a game-changer in world politics, and led to an arms race like never seen before with thousands of bombs more powerful than those that were dropped on Japan sitting in silos, submarines, and secret locations all over the world.

For those of us who lived through the 1960's at the height of the cold war, nuclear Armageddon seemed like a very real prospect. The sheer volume of bombs seemed too much for the fragile humans put in charge of them. Fallout shelters were created in cities and schoolchildren were advised to duck under their desks and cover their heads in the event of a nuclear attack, a useless process that gave some people the feeling like they could do something, anything. While the nuclear threat is lower today, it is far from gone, and politicians, generals, and game theorists are still toying with the idea of survivable nuclear wars. Why are we still even thinking about this 78 years after Hiroshima? Have we learned anything?

It's instructive to look at history and see just how close we've come to annihilation, so that we can learn from those mistakes and make sure the unthinkable never, ever happens. With Vladimir Putin seeking to subdue Ukraine, the use of nuclear weapons is a very real possibility if he gets desperate enough, and no one knows what will happen then. Here are three near-misses that show what we're up against.

1- The Cuban Missile Crisis- 1962.

The most famous nuclear stand-off in history. The Soviet Union secretly established a short-range missile base in Cuba, a communist country just miles from the US and a thorn in the side of US domination in the region. Once discovered by spy planes, the Soviets were confronted and told to remove the missiles. This led to a week-long standoff and blockade of Cuba by the US Navy. There have been many books and movies made about this scary event, and with tensions at an all-time high, it's a miracle that ships and submarines didn't end up shooting at each other during the confusion. Even one downed ship could have led to escalation in a chain of events that would have been impossible to stop.

During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy was advised to act aggressively by his joint chiefs of staff. Mere months after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, they considered bombing, invasion, and regime change in Cuba. JFK was the right man for that time in that he was able to keep his cool and negotiate a back-channel agreement that got the Soviets to remove the missiles without a war. Not only would a full-on nuclear war at that time have wiped out the US and USSR, the damages would have spread over every country on the globe with nuclear winters killing off most crops worldwide. Sobered by this near-catastrophe, both countries looked for ways to cool off the nuclear arms race.

1969- A drunken Richard Nixon orders nukes on North Korea.

Just a few months after taking the office of President, Richard Nixon was presented with his own international crisis. North Korean jets shot down a US plane over international waters, and when Nixon heard about it he reportedly began drinking and plotting a response. Nixon had previously advocated for using nukes in Vietnam and been overruled, but now he had the nuclear codes under his control. The story, which came out 40 years later, details that he called the joint chiefs while drunk, ordered a nuclear strike on airbases in North Korea, and fell asleep. Henry Kissinger, who was the voice of reason this time, picked up the phone and told the chiefs to hold off on any attack. When Nixon came to his senses the next day, the crisis was quietly over.

1983- The man who saved the world.

With Ronald Reagan in office, The Soviet Union was labeled an evil empire and tensions between the two nations escalated from there. There were several incidents that year, but the scariest involves a Soviet anti-missile warning system that malfunctioned and indicated a missile attack was underway. In reality, unusual atmospheric conditions had led to satellite malfunctions that only appeared as if missiles were inbound. Luckily for all of us, the duty officer that night, Stanislav Petrov, was aware of the problems with the satellites and went against protocol, holding off for crucial minutes on notifying his superiors, who almost certainly would have ordered retaliatory attacks. Petrov wasn't even supposed to be on duty that night- he was filling in for someone else. But he is credited with single-handedly stopping a nuclear war based on faulty information. For his efforts, Petrov received no medals from the Soviets, who were embarrassed by the exposed flaws in their detection system. He remained relatively obscure until the demise of the Soviet Union and had a documentary movie made about him in 2013- The Man Who Saved the World.

2017- Donald Trump proposes nuking North Korea and trying to pin the blame on China.

Donald Trump has always had a fascination with power, and with nuclear weapons. He has stated that they could be used in some instances and questioned why they weren't. He even proposed dropping a nuclear bomb on a hurricane to see if that would slow them down. It should be no surprise that during his tenure as president, he toyed with the idea of dropping nukes on several countries, but never quite found the will or supporters to make it happen. In 2017, Trump became obsessed with dropping bombs on North Korea (prior to discovering his great friendship with its leaders). He proposed bombing the country and making it look like China did it by painting airplanes with Chinese colors. He also toyed with doing the same to Russia with disguised aircraft. Luckily, his attention was short and his generals were well-aware of the dangers. No reported order was given, but the plan came up repeatedly in talks.

2023- Russian leader Vladimir Putin prepares for a possible nuclear assault.

In March of 2022, Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine on its Western border in one of the most shocking attacks of the 21st century. The was did not go well. Russia expected a quick, easy victory, and instead has been stymied by intense Ukrainian opposition in a war that is costing Russia internally and internationally. Putin has repeatedly threatened to use tactical, smaller nukes on the Ukrainians, and in March of 2023 he ordered nukes to be stationed in Belarus just to the North. Will they get used? And if so, what happens then? Do other nations get involved? No one knows.

If you go on Wikipedia's page of nuclear near-misses, there are at least 18 separate incidents, all pointing to human error, technical difficulties, and possible mass casualties. This goes to show both how fragile our system of controls over lethal weapons can be and how unbelievably lucky we've been so far.

Humans can be careless, ignorant, stupid, vain, drunk, power-mad, or insane, and it could be argued that no human should ever be in charge of pushing the button that will launch certain annihilation for billions. And even if our leaders were more level-headed than the rest of us, what's to stop a Dr. Strangelove scenario where rogue officers figure out a way to launch an attack on their own? Nuclear war, like conventional war, would be a horrible waste of time, money and human life, plunging the planet into a darkness that's hard to fathom. At least the certainty that nuclear wars are unwinnable has sobered most politicians and generals who have considered it.

Weapons of death, from the nuclear bomb to the AR-15, need to be taken much more seriously than they are today. Nukes are just at the extreme. Anytime a person or a nation feels disrespected, vulnerable, or angry, they start to consider using lethal force. Our lizard brains see threats and react impulsively, resulting in tragedy after tragedy. Sometimes the threats are real and the destruction justified as self-preservation, but that is rarer than we might think. The wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan all resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths and failed to accomplish what they set out to do. On a smaller scale, our obsession with weapons has led to a great escalation in guns and firepower that results in pointless deaths every day.

We must somehow learn to love, trust, and live with each other. Weapons don't build an economy, a community, or society. Will our luck run out on nukes? Maybe. But then again maybe a few million tragic deaths will finally motivate us to take each other, and this threat seriously if we want to survive the 21st century.

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