I came into awareness in the late 70s, at the time the second cold war started to kick in. For a good five years (80 to 85, tailing off after that) it seemed entirely possible that a nuclear war would happen – either by accident or design. That probably made me a bit bleaker as a person than I need to be.
Over the last 20 years or so, more detail has begun to drib and drab out about some of the points at which we were Particularly Close. After you learn about these things, you start to look at the competence and and trustworthiness of states and their military buddies in a new light. If you’re willing not to be soothed by the relentless siren calls of trust in these expert men (and it is men, almost exclusively), the world becomes a much scarier – but more understandable – place.
Some of my “favourite” examples from the 25 year period during which we really did come very close on many occasions (and I suspect there are others that will never be declassified/acknowledged.)
At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis (caused in part by Kennedy needing to prove just how tough he could be ahead of the Congressional elections of November 1962), the US Navy decided it would be a smart idea to depth-charge a Soviet Nuclear Submarine. Here’s what happened next –
On October 27, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph trapped a nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot class submarine B-59 near Cuba and started dropping practice depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, believing that a war might already have started, wanted to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo, despite the Soviets being informed about the practice.
Three officers on board the submarine — Savitsky, the Political Officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the second in command Arkhipov — were authorized to launch the torpedo if agreeing unanimously in favor of doing so. An argument broke out among the three, in which only Arkhipov was against the launch, eventually persuading Savitsky to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow. The nuclear warfare which presumably would have ensued was thus averted.
shorted out microchips
on June 3, 1980. At 2:26 in the morning, alarms went off in the Strategic Air Command’s underground command post in Omaha as display screens showed two Russian sub-based missiles heading toward the U.S. from the North Atlantic. Klaxons awakened bomber and missile crews, and 76 B-52s were prepared for takeoff. Meanwhile, headquarters checked with remote radar stations to see if they could confirm the enemy contact. For 60 seconds things looked tense, but by then the radar stations were reporting that they could find no sign of the Russian missiles. Command post honchos quickly concluded that there was a malfunction in the computer system that relayed battle data, and the bomber crews were ordered to shut off their engines. The alert was terminated at 2:29, three minutes and 12 seconds after it began. Engineers eventually traced the problem to a 46-cent computer chip that had shorted out.
War Games that nobody bothered to tell the Russkies about…
Able Archer 83 was a ten-day NATO command post exercise starting on November 2, 1983 that spanned Western Europe, centred on the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) Headquarters situated at Casteau, north of the Belgian city of Mons. Able Archer exercises simulated a period of conflict escalation, culminating in a coordinated nuclear release. The 1983 exercise incorporated a new, unique format of coded communication, radio silences, participation by heads of government, and a simulated DEFCON 1 nuclear alert.
The realistic nature of the 1983 exercise, coupled with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the anticipated arrival of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, led some members of the Soviet Politburo to believe that Able Archer 83 was a ruse of war, obscuring preparations for a genuine nuclear first strike. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces and placed air units in East Germany and Poland on alert. This relatively obscure incident is considered by many historians to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The threat of nuclear war abruptly ended with the conclusion of the Able Archer 83 exercise on November 11.
As Midnight Oil sang
“Another little flare up, storm brewed in a tea cup
Imagine any mix up and the lot would go”