3 Instances When the World Came Close to Nuclear War

In 1955, the United States detonated a nuclear bomb near some beer cans and bottles to test if the beer was still drinkable after a nuclear explosion.

Since Oppenheimer’s invention of the atom bomb, the possibility of a nuclear war has been a looming threat in people’s minds. Whether it was the fear of Kim Jong-un’s missiles or Khrushchev’s winter-producing weapons, the world has experienced the fear of a nuclear holocaust.

With all the nuclear posturing and flexing around the world, it is unsurprising that the planet has been on the brink of nuclear war several times, either accidentally or intentionally. This article highlights three instances when the world nearly broke out into nuclear war.

A Malfunctioning Trigger – The North Carolina Incident, January 1961

The 60s were a decade of free love and the Cold War. Along with The Beatles and Woodstock, the 60s were known for the phrase “make love not war” and “mutually assured destruction” (or the combination of the two). Nuclear war, retaliation, and holocaust were popular mindsets among both the Eastern and Western governments, especially among the American Generals who advocated for dropping the third bomb on Japan after their surrender.

During the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, the United States kept bombers and jets carrying nuclear bombs in the air to respond to a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. The thinking behind this was that even if the Soviets destroyed their country, they could not destroy the sky, so they kept some bombs there for emergencies.

On January 24, 1961, four days after JFK’s inauguration, a B-52G Stratofortress jet bomber flew over Goldsboro in North Carolina, loaded with a pair of Mark 39 3.8-megaton hydrogen bombs. Each of these bombs was approximately 260 times more powerful than either of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At midnight on January 23, the bomber was scheduled to undergo a mid-air refueling. However, the refueling crew noticed that the bomber’s right wing was leaking fuel, so the operation was called off. Although the fault was not necessarily a problem, the crew of eight lost control of the plane after being redirected to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

The Stratofortress aircraft experienced a series of disastrous events, losing its wing and tail before spiraling out of control. The pilot, Adam Mattocks, ordered his crew to evacuate, resulting in the survival of five out of the eight total crew members. Unfortunately, the remaining crew members did not survive the accident. The aircraft crashed nose-first into a tobacco field, causing a fire. As it fell, the bomber’s bomb-bay doors opened, causing the two nuclear weapons onboard to fall out into the night. One of the bombs had deployed its parachute and landed safely in a tree, with its arming switch in the “safe” position. The other bomb, however, had a failed parachute and broke into many pieces upon impact. Remarkably, despite being armed, the bomb failed to detonate, with nobody knowing why. The bomb’s primary uranium core was found, but the secondary core remains missing, buried somewhere up to 60 meters below the crash site. Thankfully, the bomb never exploded, as it would have caused widespread devastation, with an estimated 28,000 people vaporized and 26,000 injured, along with a 30-mile radiation cloud. Declassified in 2014, this incident highlights how close the world was to nuclear war.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the USS Randolph and 11 US Navy destroyers located the Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59, armed with nuclear weapons, near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the US Navy dropped depth charges on the B-59 to force it to surface. Three nuclear action decision-makers were aboard the submarine: Captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, Political Officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and Second-In-Command Vasili Arkhipov. For the submarine’s nuclear armament to be used, all three officers had to agree. Typically, only the Captain and Political Officer needed to agree for Russian submarines with a “Special Weapon” to fire, but in this case, Vasili Arkhipov’s unanimous approval was required due to his position as the flotilla commander to which the B-59 belonged.

The B-59 submarine had lost contact with Moscow for several days and even though they could still pick up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, their radios had gone completely silent when they dived deeper to avoid the U.S. Navy’s depth charges. The submarine was trapped in international waters, with explosions rocking them, and an argument broke out between the three officers. The captain and political officer believed that war had already broken out and the only option was to retaliate with a nuclear torpedo. However, Vasili Arkhipov refused to give the order to fire and eventually convinced the captain to surface and await orders from Moscow. Upon returning to the Soviet Union, Vasili and his crew were initially viewed as villains, but later recognized as heroes for preventing a nuclear war.

In September 1983, during the height of the Cold War, Stanislav Petrov was on duty at a Soviet Union military facility that specialized in detecting incoming missiles from the U.S. He suddenly spotted several U.S. nuclear missiles flying towards Russia, but he refused to believe the instruments and readings, disbelieving that the Americans would launch a nuclear strike.

Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet military officer, made a risky decision in 1983 when he dismissed false readings of an incoming missile attack instead of reporting it to his superiors. Despite having all the evidence to support the attack, he chose to investigate further before taking action. His training mandated that he should have immediately contacted the Soviet military officers to inform them of the incoming threat. However, he reported a system malfunction instead, which was a serious dereliction of duty. Petrov doubted the readings and checked America’s missile launch sites, where he found no activity. He later discovered that the system’s surveillance satellites had identified sunlight reflected on clouds as the engines of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Petrov kept his silence for ten years, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he went public with the information and was credited with several international awards. Petrov refused to admit that he was absolutely sure the readings were wrong, but he was hailed as a hero for his composure under pressure. He died at the age of 77, retired at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His decision saved the world from a possible full-scale Russian nuclear bombardment of America and possibly mainland Europe.


1. What were the Cuban Missile Crisis?

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a political and military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union in October 1962 over the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The crisis is regarded as the closest the world ever came to nuclear war, as both countries were on the brink of launching a full-scale attack on each other.

2. How did the Cuban Missile Crisis end?

The Cuban Missile Crisis ended when the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba and the United States agreed not to invade Cuba and to remove US missiles from Turkey. The resolution was reached through direct communication between US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

3. What was the Berlin Crisis?

The Berlin Crisis was a political and military standoff between the United States, Great Britain, and France on one side and the Soviet Union on the other over the status of the city of Berlin. The crisis began in 1948 when the Soviet Union blocked access to Berlin from the other three powers, and it ended in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the West.

4. How did the Berlin Crisis almost lead to a nuclear war?

The Berlin Crisis almost led to a nuclear war when the Soviet Union, in response to the construction of the Berlin Wall, began increasing its military presence in East Germany and deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba. US President John F. Kennedy responded by increasing the US military presence in West Germany and putting the US military on high alert, which brought the two countries to the brink of nuclear war.

5. What was the Able Archer 83 exercise?

The Able Archer 83 exercise was a NATO military exercise in November 1983 that simulated a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The exercise involved communication between NATO military commanders and the deployment of nuclear weapons, and it was interpreted by the Soviet Union as a prelude to an actual nuclear attack.

6. How did the Able Archer 83 exercise almost lead to a nuclear war?

The Able Archer 83 exercise almost led to a nuclear war when the Soviet Union misinterpreted the exercise as a real attack and put its own military on high alert. Soviet leaders believed that the exercise was a cover for a real nuclear attack and prepared to respond with their own nuclear weapons, but the crisis was averted when cooler heads prevailed on both sides.

7. What was the Norwegian rocket incident?

The Norwegian rocket incident was a false alarm in 1995 that led the Russian military to believe that a Norwegian weather rocket was actually a US missile. Russian military leaders were prepared to launch a nuclear counterattack, but the crisis was averted when Russian President Boris Yeltsin was informed of the mistake and ordered the military to stand down.

8. How did the Norwegian rocket incident highlight the danger of nuclear war?

The Norwegian rocket incident highlighted the danger of nuclear war by showing how easily a false alarm or mistake could lead to a nuclear exchange. The incident also showed the importance of communication and trust between nuclear-armed nations, and it led to increased efforts to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war.

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