Saturday, July 30, 2016

Too-close Nuclear Annihilation – Then and Now

(Sent as letter to editor at Valley Times-News, July 30, 2016)

Probably the closest the world has come in the past to nuclear annihilation happened during the Cold War when one of the global nuclear superpowers began placing potentially nuclear-armed missiles close to the other nuclear superpower’s borders. Both countries had plenty of ICBM type nuclear weapons, but a launch on either side of these over-the-Pole intercontinental missiles would be detected by the enemy country’s radars and allow at least thirty minutes for that country to launch its massive counter-strike before its own cities and missile bases were hit and destroyed.

Thus we had Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD, yes. But it can be plausibly argued that MAD prevented nuclear war. To launch a first-strike nuclear attack under those conditions would be suicidal. Placing nuclear-tipped missiles so close to the other country’s borders, however, would cut the warning time drastically, thus possibly allowing a first strike that would destroy the enemy country’s missile bases and cities before that country could launch its counter-strike.

Understandably, the “enemy” country so threatened began top-level negotiations with the other superpower to withdraw those too-close missile sites. The “enemy” country also began to deploy its military forces to prevent any more of those dangerous shorter-range missiles from being emplaced. That was when the world came within seconds of total nuclear war. The two opposed military forces were also nuclear-armed, and when they went head-to-head, on one side one commander, fearing his unit was about to be destroyed, ordered the launch of a tactical nuclear weapon.

That commander was in fact mistaken about the tactical situation; something that we know often happens when even competent and usually clear-minded military officers are blinded by “the fog of war.” His mistaken order, if carried out, would almost certainly have triggered an exchange that would have spun out of control, with disastrous consequences for both countries, and indeed for the whole world.

Fortunately, his mistaken order to launch a nuclear war was countermanded by a superior officer who happened to be present.  And the top-level negotiations ended with both sides agreeing to pull back from threatening each other in such serious ways.

Captain Vasili Arkhipov and his wife Olga
In this story, which took place in October of 1962, the “enemy” country was the U.S. and the other country the Soviet Union. Those dangerously too-close missiles were being placed in Cuba. The U.S. had already placed similar missiles in Turkey. The officer who said No to nuclear war, who the whole world should be honoring but is mostly and sadly forgotten, was Soviet navy Captain (later Admiral) Vasili Arkhipov.  You can see a PBS docudrama about the story at

That was then. Now, the story is being re-enacted, the “enemy” country now being the Russian Federation, not the U.S. It is the U.S. (aka NATO) placing missile sites too close to the “enemy” country’s borders. The “enemy” country’s leader, Vladimir Putin, has called for top-level negotiations, and made a plea to international journalists to understand and fully report on the deployment of so-called anti-missile sites along and near the Russian border, which he reasonably points out as “upsetting the geostrategic balance of power, which used to exist,” in effect threatening Russia with annihilation in a first-strike attack. He says, “From what I can see, we are in grave danger.” You can watch his speech (with English captions, about 12 minutes) at:

We don’t know the rest of the “Now” story. I hope it will end as happily as the 1962 version, with successful top-level negotiations. But so far the U.S. seems much more interested in ratcheting up both economic and military pressure on Russia. So the situation is extremely dangerous, with too many opportunities for disastrous miscalculations and mistakes up and down both chains of command. If the Russians reasonably perceive that their national security is under threat, possibly even by a devastating first-strike attack, they reasonably will have to consider deploying their own military in some way to oppose and defeat that threat, and possibly launching their own “defensive” first strike.

For the above and for other reasons, William J. Perry, former Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, says we are closer to nuclear annihilation now than we ever were during the Cold War. Perry, a scientist who worked on nuclear issues at top levels starting during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, knows what he is talking about. His book is titled My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. You can read a review in Military Times:

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