Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to threaten to use nuclear weapons as retaliation for any attack from the West. For many, this threat brings back some of the constant state of fear that was commonplace during the Cold War. At the peak of the conflict between the two global powers, there were some 65,000 nuclear weapons armed and ready to fly at a moment’s notice. (These are the countries that control the world’s nuclear weapons.)
During this era of heightened tensions, the average American may not realize exactly how, on more than two dozen occasions, the U.S. and Russia came frighteningly close to launching those weapons with the destructive power capable of ending life on earth as we know it.
To find nuclear close calls that nearly caused World War III, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed several articles and research papers, including from Union of Concerned Scientists, Nuclear Files, History.com, Future of Life Institute, and History Hit. Incidents are listed in chronological order. There were numerous incidents during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. We have only listed a few incidents – in general and from the crisis. The Soviets no doubt also had close calls, and only a few are known.
The vast majority of these near misses came during the heightened tensions of the Cold War, especially between the 1960s and 1980s. These incidents were often simply the result of a mistake – whether a mechanical problem causing issues, a communication breakdown between nuclear nations, or just a simple misunderstanding. Other close calls, however, were the result of deliberate actions taken by one country or another that in some way provoked or worried its adversary.
Many nuclear non-proliferation organizations have worked to try to convince nations with nuclear arsenals to ratchet down the threat of nuclear war and to try to convince other nations from developing such weapons of their own. The consequences of the only two nuclear weapons ever used, by the U.S. on Japan in the 1940s, were devastating. Nuclear weapons have only gotten more powerful since, and the use of these weapons would be catastrophic. This is what a nuclear war would do to the world.
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