The Buzz

5 Ways Nuclear Armageddon Was Almost Unleashed (Or World War III)

One interesting note: beloved leftist icon Fidel Castro encouraged the Soviets to strike first with nuclear weapons if Cuba were invaded. Khrushchev upbraided Castro, and the Cuban dictator eventually regretted his recommendation to start World War III – albeit fifty years later.

3. The War the Soviet Generals Wanted: Vietnam, 1965

In November 1965, Lyndon Johnson reportedly exploded with rage at a meeting with the Joint Chiefs, who wanted him to go bigger in the newly launched intervention in Vietnam. Johnson swore a blue streak at them for being willing, in his view, to risk nuclear war over Vietnam. As it turns out, Johnson wasn’t the only one having a problem with generals.

After the Soviet collapse, previously censored memoirs of a Khrushchev political ally, Anastas Mikoyan, were finally published in Russia. Mikoyan related a chilling story, also from 1965: the Soviet General Staff, incensed by the U.S. bombing of Vietnam and earlier U.S. action in the Dominican Republic, suggested increasing pressure on...yes, Berlin:

[The Soviet Minister of Defense, General Rodion Malinovskii] asserted that we should not be limited by anything we were already doing to help Vietnam, and that after the Dominican events we should expect action directed against Cuba. Thus we should actively counter the Americans. It was proposed that in the West (that is, in Berlin and on the border with Western Europe) a military demonstration should be carried out, and to send certain units--airborne forces and others--from our territory to Germany and to Hungary. He emphasized that we must be ready to strike West Berlin. Later, he added his own comment that “in general, in connection with the emerging situation, it follows that we do not fear approaching the risk of war.”

Mikoyan wrote that the military’s position “staggered” him, and Soviet civilian leaders, aghast, squashed the idea quickly. With both sides looking to make Vietnam a larger fight, however, it’s lucky that the spring of 1965 didn’t turn out to be a lot hotter than it already was.

 4. Red Alert: The Middle East, 1973

After a punishing defeat in the Arab-Israeli 1967 Six-Day War, the Egyptians were looking to get even.  In 1973, Egypt – at that point a Soviet client state and the lynchpin of the Soviet position in the Middle East – executed a surprise attack on Israel at the outset of the Yom Kippur War.

Although the Egyptians and their allies achieved significant gains, the Israelis recovered sufficiently to counterattack, eventually surrounding and threatening to destroy the entire Egyptian Third Army. As U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried to hold back the Israelis, the Kremlin tried to save its Egyptian friends with the novel solution of a joint U.S. – Soviet military intervention to separate the warring parties.

The Americans instantly recognized the Kremlin’s offer for what it was: an attempt to introduce Soviet troops into the Middle East. Washington refused. The Soviet leadership then threatened to intervene unilaterally, sending President Richard Nixon a message that Kissinger later characterized as one of the most serious challenges to a White House ever sent from Moscow.

Nixon in late 1973 was weakened by the storms of scandal and less than a year from resigning, which may have prompted the aggressive Soviet move. Kissinger and the White House team, however, responded by bringing the U.S. military – including America’s strategic nuclear forces – to a higher alert status. It’s possible that the Soviets were bluffing; a former Soviet advisor has since denied there were any Soviet invasion plans afoot.  Serious or not, the Soviets dropped the idea, and a few weeks later, the Americans quietly stood down their alert.

If Soviet forces had gone into the region and ended up in a shooting war with the Israelis, things would have been very different – to say nothing of what could have happened had Israeli leader Golda Meir not prohibited the option of using the Israeli nuclear arsenal itself.

5. This is Only an Exercise: Europe, 1983

The last major alert of the Cold War happened by accident, and the public didn’t know about it for decades. For that matter, neither did most of America’s NATO allies, even though they were involved.

In 1983, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were as cold as they had ever been, with President Ronald Reagan’s administration pushing a tough policy of confrontation and Soviet boss Yuri Andropov (a hardline former head of the KGB) leading a coterie of increasingly paranoid old men in the Kremlin. It was a tense year, from Reagan’s “evil empire” speech in March to the Soviet downing of a civilian airliner in September.