The Biggest Nuclear War Threats Since Cuban Missile Crisis

In October 1962 tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union surged after Moscow deployed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. coast.

President John F. Kennedy ordered the American Navy to 'quarantine' the Caribbean Island, to prevent more missiles arriving, and demanded those already in place were removed.

Notably, he rejected a plan by National Security Council members, and other top aids, to respond by bombing and invading Cuba.

In an especially tense moment, on October 27, the commander of a Soviet submarine attempted to fire a nuclear tipped torpedo after falsely believing he'd come under attack from a U.S. warship.

But another officer onboard, Vasily Arkhipov, was able to veto the command.

Composite An Atomic bomb and Putin
In this combination image, testing of atomic bomb over ocean with mushroom clouds and Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured in September, 2021

A deal was eventually agreed between Kennedy and the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, which saw Moscow remove its missiles in return for a U.S. guarantee that Cuba wouldn't be invaded.

Secretly the Americans also agreed to remove nuclear capable Jupiter ballistic missiles from Turkey.

However, now there are growing concerns Russian leader Vladimir Putin could resort to nuclear weapons in Ukraine, following major reverses on the battlefield.

Newsweek has drawn up a list of the nuclear near misses since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, with some expert comment on their severity.

1967 Solar Storm

In 1967, a solar storm interfered with American early warning radar sites in Alaska, Greenland and the U.K., leading Air Force commanders to believe they were being jammed by the Soviets.

In response, nuclear armed aircraft were prepared for launch.

However, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was able to confirm the interference was caused by a solar storm, and tensions in the U.S. receded.

1983 False Alarms

In September 1983, a Soviet early warning system falsely reported an American intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched towards the USSR, potentially followed by four more.

Tensions were already high after the Soviets shot down a Korean Air passenger plane earlier in the month, after mistaking it for a spy plane.

Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who was on duty with the early warning system, broke protocol by not reporting incoming missiles, which he correctly judged didn't exist.

Just six weeks later, on November 7, a major NATO wargame, Able Archer 83, was launched, including nuclear weapons scenarios. The Soviets mistook this for actual attack preparations, and readied nuclear armed aircraft and ballistic missiles in response.

The West didn't learn how concerned the Soviets had been until Oleg Gordievsky, a British double agent, informed them sometime after the event.

1995 Norwegian Rocket Incident

In 1995, the Russians mistook Black Brant XII, a Norwegian research rocket sent to study the Northern Lights, for an incoming (possibly nuclear) armed ballistic missile.

President Boris Yeltsin activated his nuclear suitcase and Russian submarines were put on alert for a potential retaliatory strike. After some very tense minutes Black Brant XII began heading away from Russian airspace, and Moscow cancelled the alert.

This is the only known case of the nuclear suitcase of a world leader being activated for a possible retaliatory strike.

2022 War in Ukraine

Senior Russian officials have repeated warned, both explicitly and implicitly, that they could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, especially after President Putin annexed four Ukrainian provinces on September 30.

Early that month, after confirming his annexation plans, Putin insisted Russia would use "all means" to defend its territorial integrity, in what some experts saw as an allusion to nuclear weapons.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Putin strongman who runs Russia's Chechnya province, has suggested "low-yield nuclear weapons" should be used against Ukraine.

Speaking to Newsweek, Professor David Barash, an expert in preventing nuclear war, University of Washington, said the chances of Putin using a nuclear weapon "remain slim."

However, he warned tensions could spiral out of control, even if national leaders don't want them to, due to mistakes or miscalculations.

The professor explained: "Regarding the three previous major near-misses [Cuba, 1983 and 1995], it's striking that in all those cases, we came terrifyingly close, and we are getting that close today. It could certainly get worse; e.g., there haven't been any detectable movements of nuclear arsenals or changes in Russian command and control. Should that happen, the dangers of nuclear use, and even all-out nuclear war, would increase greatly.

"This is where the Cuban Missile Crisis and Able Archer come in; in both cases, things came horribly near to spinning out of control, not because of decisions made at the top but because of errors, blunders, misperceptions, etc, mostly lower on the command chain and that the higher-ups couldn't control and often didn't even know about."

Villanova University Professor David M. Barrett, who co-authored Blind Over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis, told Newsweek that Putin using "smaller A bombs" is "definitely imaginable," though he added nuclear attacks on the U.S. would be "suicide on Putin and Russia's part."

Comparing the current emergency to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he added: "In the end, in a grave crisis, it comes down to what the President decides. JFK [John F. Kennedy] stayed calm and rational during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think Biden would, too.

"JFK paid lots of attention to what 'his' CIA and military were doing in the crisis. Scholars have long known (and each new president discovers) that a president must exert energy, time, thought, etc, into getting his agencies to do what he wants.

"I think Khrushchev was more of a rational actor than Putin seems to be. That's scary."