While war is almost a major occurrence in the world today due to increase in terrorism, insurgency and on many occasions, civil unrest. The idea of a 3rd world war has always seemed remote, perhaps due to the mutual understanding of the gravity of destruction that such a war will unleash – as virtually every country in the world today are either armed with nuclear weapons or are close allies with one or two nuclear powers. However, despite the vague concept of a possible nuclear war, there have been moments in history in which the world came so close to a nuclear meltdown. Surprisingly, many of these moments have been as a result of rather ridiculous reasons. Here are a few of examples of moments in history that almost led to another world war.

  1. November 1956

During the Suez Crisis, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) received a number of simultaneous reports, including unidentified aircraft over Turkey, Soviet MiG-15 fighters over Syria, a downed British Canberra medium bomber, and unexpected maneuvers by the Soviet Black Sea Fleet through the Dardanelles that appeared to signal a Soviet offensive. Considering previous Soviet threats to utilize conventional weapons against France and the UK, U.S. forces believed these events could trigger a NATO nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. In fact, all reports of Soviet action turned out to be erroneous, misinterpreted, or exaggerated. The perceived threat was due to a coincidental combination of events, including a wedge of swans over Turkey, a fighter escort for the Syrian president returning from Moscow, a British bomber brought down by mechanical issues, and scheduled exercises of the Soviet fleet.

  1. October 1960

Radar equipment in Thule, Greenland mistakenly interpreted a moonrise over Norway as a large-scale Soviet missile launch. Upon receiving a report of the supposed attack, NORAD went on high alert. However, doubts about the authenticity of the attack arose due to the presence of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in New York as head of the USSR’s United Nations delegation.

  1. Berlin, 1961

In October 1961, a few months after the Berlin Wall went up, an American diplomat tried to cross through “Checkpoint Charlie” into East Berlin. The East German police – whose authority the United States did not recognize – demanded papers. The diplomat refused, and later came back with jeeps and soldiers. Again, the local cops demanded he accede to their demands. This time, the Americans sent tanks. The Soviets, having been alerted to the situation, also sent tanks of their own. For three days, the U.S. and the USSR stared down each other’s gun barrels on a German street. Finally, the Americans quietly proposed that the Soviets test the waters by pulling back one tank. They did so, and the Americans reciprocated. The crisis was over, but West Berlin remained until 1989 a Western outpost in the midst of the Communist camp.

  1. The B-59 Submarine Incident, 1962

A minor incident aboard a Soviet submarine might stand as the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. On October 27, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the American destroyer USS Beale began dropping depth charges on the nuclear-armed Soviet Submarine B-59, which was lurking near the U.S. blockade line around Cuba. The charges were non-lethal warning shots intended to force B-59 to the surface, but the submarine’s captain mistook them for live explosives. Convinced he was witnessing the opening salvo of World War III, the captain angrily ordered his men to arm the sub’s lone nuclear-tipped torpedo and prepare for attack.

The misunderstanding could have resulted in disaster if not for a contingency measure that required all three of the submarine’s senior officers to sign off on a nuclear launch. The Soviet captain was in favour, but Vasili Arkhipov, B-59’s second in command, refused to give his consent. After calming the captain down, Arkhipov convinced his fellow officers to bring B-59 to the surface and request new orders from Moscow. The submarine eventually returned to Russia without incident, but it was over 40 years before a full account of Arkhipov’s life-saving decision finally came to light.

  1. Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962

The Cuban Missile Crisis is often described as the closest the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to nuclear conflict. Many people across the world feared the worst after the USSR deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Soon after President Kennedy announced in a dramatic televised appearance that a blockade would be established around the island in order to stop boats arriving, charging the Soviet Union with subterfuge and outright deception. He claimed it was a “clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace.”

The biggest US troop invasion force since D-Day gathered in Florida in preparation for war and the US Strategic Air Command was ordered to Defcon (Defence Condition) 2 – the highest level it has ever reached. In addition, American bombers were reportedly in the air 24 hours a day carrying nuclear weapons, each one being given a target and being told to launch at a moment’s notice.

It truly looked like America was moments away from War – until Soviet leader Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter offering an agreement. It stated that they would remove missiles in return for the Americans removing the blockade, as well as a promise not to invade the island without direct provocation. Luckily for people everywhere, Kennedy accepted the offer and World War III was avoided by the skin of everyone’s teeth yet again.

  1. The Able Archer 83 Exercise, 1983

Although it was not widely known at the time, declassified government documents have since revealed that a November 1983 NATO war game nearly saw the United States and the Soviet Union come to blows. The source of the misunderstanding was an exercise known as Able Archer 83, which was supposed to simulate how a conventional attack on Europe by the Soviet Union could eventually be met by a U.S. nuclear strike. Such simulations were not uncommon during the Cold War, but the Able Archer mission differed from the usual protocol in both its scope and realism. In preparation for the war game, the United States airlifted 19,000 troops to Europe, changed its alert status to DEFCON 1 and moved certain commands to alternate locations—all steps that typically would only be taken in times of war.

For the Soviets, these manoeuvres perfectly matched their own predictions for how the Americans would set the table for a nuclear offensive. While they knew a war game was taking place, they were also wary that it could be a ruse to cover up preparations for a real world attack. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Soviets had soon gone into high alert and readied their nuclear arsenal, with some units in East Germany and Poland even preparing their fighter jets for take-off. They remained poised for a counterstrike until November 11, when the Able Archer exercise ended without incident. Only later did NATO and the United States realize that their realistic simulation of World War III had very nearly led to the real thing.

  1. Nuclear False Alarm, 1983

On September 26, 1983, Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was in command at Serpukhov-15, a bunker where the Soviets monitored their satellite-based detection systems. Shortly after midnight, panic broke out when an alarm sounded signaling that the United States had fired five Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), toward Russia. The warning was a false alarm – one of the satellites had misinterpreted the glint of sunlight off clouds near Montana as a missile launch – but to the Soviets, it appeared the United States had started a nuclear war.

Protocol demanded that Petrov report any signs of a missile launch to the Soviet high command, but Petrov had a hunch the warning was an error. He knew the new satellite system was mistake-prone, and he also reasoned that any nuclear strike by the Americans would come in the form of hundreds of missiles, not just five. With only minutes to make a decision, Petrov chose to ignore the blaring warning alarms and reported the launch as a false alarm, a move that may have averted a nuclear holocaust. The incident remained classified until after the Cold War ended, but Petrov later received several humanitarian awards for his extraordinary actions, and was even honoured by the United Nations.

  1. January 1995

Russian President Boris Yeltsin became the first world leader to activate a nuclear briefcase after Russian radar systems detected the launch of what was later determined to be a Norwegian Black Brant XII research rocket being used to study the Northern Lights. Russian ballistic missile submarines were put on alert in preparation for a possible retaliatory strike. When it became clear the rocket did not pose a threat to Russia and was not part of a larger attack, the alarm was cancelled. Russia was in fact one of a number of countries earlier informed of the launch; however, the information had not reached the Russian radar operators.

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