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The world’s narrow escape from nuclear war

Author Serhii Plokhy reflects on the world’s closest shave with nuclear war in 1962, and that fact that all that really saved us was ‘plain dumb luck.’

In October 1962 the world experienced the most dangerous crisis in its history. As the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered Soviet nuclear armed missiles to be placed in Cuba to protect the island from possible American invasion, and redress the imbalance in the missile power between the United States and his country, US President John F Kennedy declared the naval blockade of Cuba. In the tense days and weeks that followed that decision, Kennedy and Khrushchev managed to avoid nuclear confrontation thanks to the one feature they shared – the fear of nuclear war.

Numerous books have been written on the history of the crisis since its resolution. Almost all of them are focused on the decision-making process in Kennedy’s White House. What is often lost in that analysis is the understanding that Kennedy and Khrushchev had limited control over the actions of their military and more than once lost control over the situation on the ground, on the seas and in the sky. On a number of occasions, the key decision on whether to start a shooting war that could eventually lead to the nuclear exchange lay not with them, but with their commanders in the theatre. It is not for nothing that a former US secretary of state, Dean Acheson, suggested that John Kennedy avoided war by “plain dumb luck”.

Few events in the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrate the degree of the danger caused by the actions of the individual commanders, and the importance of the “dumb luck,” in the avoidance of the nuclear war than the drama which played out in the late hours of October 27 and early morning of October 28 1962 when, in the Sargasso Sea, four Soviet nuclear-armed submarines approached the US quarantine line.

The world really was saved from nuclear war by dumb luck

On that night, American submarine-hunting ships attacked the Soviet Foxtrot class nuclear-armed submarine B-59 with practice charges, forcing it to the surface.

Once the submarine broke the surface, it was completely surrounded by American ships. As the sub’s captain Valentin Savitsky engaged the submarine’s diesel engines to recharge its batteries, he negotiated with the Americans by means of searchlight signals. Then an American airplane appeared over the B-59, dropping flares to activate its cameras. Assuming that he was under attack, Savitsky rushed down from the bridge into the submarine, giving the order to prepare the sub’s nuclear torpedo for firing. The torpedo, bearing a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead, might well have wiped out the entire US Navy force surrounding the Soviet Foxtrot. More importantly, it would have left John Kennedy in Washington with few options but to respond in kind to a nuclear attack.

The world really was saved from nuclear war by “dumb luck” – a searchlight employed by a Soviet signals officer got stuck in the submarine’s hatch. That gave enough time to another senior officer, Captain Vasily Arkhipov, who remained on the bridge, to see the Americans signalling apologies for the accident. It was not an attack after all. Arkhipov called off Savitsky’s order. In less than two days, alarmed by the news that his missile defences in Cuba had fired without orders from Moscow and shot down an American U-2 airplane, killing its pilot, Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw Soviet missiles from the island. The Soviet subs returned to their base.

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To date, the Cuban crisis has been the world’s closest brush with an accidental outbreak of nuclear war. It taught us a number of lessons that are especially important today, in the conditions of the renewed nuclear arms race. Unbeknown to the public at large, the new race is already well under way. There has been an American and Russian abandonment of the treaty to control intermediate-range missiles, originally signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, on top of which is the recent decision by Boris Johnson’s administration to raise the cap on Trident nuclear warheads by more than 40 per cent, increasing their number from 180 to 260.

As the Cold War-era nuclear arms agreements fade into the past, we find ourselves once again in uncharted waters of the kind that the world navigated in the 1950s and 1960s. The best we can do under the circumstances is to relearn the lessons offered to us by the Cuban Missile Crisis. The most important of them is that the wars do not always start by design. Quite often they are triggered by the accidents that take the agency away from the hands of the world leaders who assume that they have full control over the crises they are only too willing to create.

Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Serhii Plokhy is out now (Allen Lane, £25)

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