19 October 2012
Patricia Lewis

Dr Patricia Lewis

Research Director, International Security, Chatham House


For thirteen days in October 1962, a military stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union brought the world the closest to global nuclear war as we have ever been. US President Kennedy raised the readiness level of Strategic Air Command forces to DEFCON 2 – thought to be the highest state of nuclear readiness thus far ordered. 

The United States by then had some 27,000 warheads and the USSR had over 3,000. These numbers would increase significantly during the Cold War with the USSR building up the stockpile to over 44,000 warheads and the USA increasing their capability to over 32,000 warheads.  Both nuclear powers increased their firepower and target capacity by creating a wide range of delivering systems from missiles that could carry multiple, independently-targetable warheads to battlefield backpacks and mortar rounds. Shops, submarines, trucks, trains and aircraft were all adapted to be able to fire, on a hair-trigger alert to thousands of targets in each other’s countries and in those of allies. 

By 1962, the UK and France had joined the ranks of the nuclear weapons powers and China tested its first nuclear bomb in 1964. Since then Israel, India, and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons capabilities. As did South Africa; only to dismantle them as the Apartheid regime fell. North Korea has tested two nuclear devices but it is not clear that they have yet been able to develop a deliverable weapon. Several other countries flirted or indeed went further, but each pulled back from crossing the nuclear threshold. Today, efforts are now focused on persuading Iran from going down the nuclear weapons path.

Most people who are old enough to remember the events in 1962, will tell you that it was a terrifying time but war was prevented because the fear of nuclear catastrophe prevailed in the minds of Khrushchev and Kennedy. In other words the concept that nuclear weapons deter war worked. However on deeper examination, further questions surface. Why did Secretary Khrushchev make that risky decision to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba? And why did President Kennedy raise the stakes in imposing quarantine when he was so worried about nuclear escalation? How could Prime Minister Castro have been so ready to sacrifice Cuba and its entire population? 

What many people do not know however is that there was at least one vital piece of information that was not available to decision-makers. Speaking to The Guardian in 2002, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1961-68) told of how he learned forty years later that things were far more out of control than he had realized: '...the subs approaching the blockade were carrying nuclear-tipped torpedoes...they had orders to shoot 'when they thought it was desirable' if they were out of radio contact. Several did lose touch with Moscow, and continued preparing to launch for days after Kruschev had ended the crisis.'

Avoidance of Nuclear War 'Lucky'

According to Russian eye-witness accounts, on October 27, US Navy ships cornered a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine near Cuba and dropped a series of depth charges, hoping to force the submarine to come to the surface. However, conditions on the submarine were tense. Because the crew had been out of communication contact with Moscow and unable to pick up other radio transmissions at depth, the captain of the submarine, believing that war had most likely already started, wanted to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo. The rules of engagement for the submarine command were that three named officers on board, if unanimous, had the authority to launch the nuclear weapon without the command from Moscow. The world will forever be in debt to the Deputy Brigade Commander Captain Second Rank Vasili Arkhipov who withheld consent for launch and persuaded the captain to surface the submarine and seek orders from Moscow. In the documentary film The Fog of War Secretary McNamara states: 'I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war.’

Threat Still Looms

Perhaps what we need to take away from the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis fifty years later is that chance plays a far more significant role than we should like to believe. Decision-makers in a crisis, however brilliant, rational, and decisive, can never have the full set of vital information that they need. There will always be actions and intentions of which they have no knowledge. There will always be unintended consequences and wild card events. 

While conventional weapons can do enormous damage, conventional bombing can be halted in the light of new information. With nuclear weapons however, just firing one missile is enough to destroy a large city and once fired it cannot be called back. There are no small mistakes when it comes to launching nuclear weapons and we have relied heavily on luck throughout the nuclear age. Let’s hope that our luck holds.

Further Resources

A Date with History...The Cuban Missile Crisis
The World Today, October 2012
Martin Walker, author

Future Prospects for Nuclear Energy
Video, Audio, Transcript, October 2012
Yukiya Amano, Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)