World War III should have happened by now. As General George Lee Butler, who was in charge of the American nuclear arsenal under President George H. W. Bush, remarked, “We escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”
What does he mean by that? Let’s review the history, which, at least in my high school classes, was woefully inadequate. We learned a lot about “nuclear deterrence” and “mutually assured destruction” and “the madman theory”, but these high-minded theoretical concepts should have been supplemented by the reality that the world was this close to ending on more than a few occasions. According to game theory, there is a stable Nash equilibrium obtained when both sides have nuclear missiles and thus the capacity to wipe out the other. As Yogi Berra quipped, though, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” The practice of mutually assured destruction is a helluva lot scarier than what you read in textbooks.
Take, for instance, the most well-known example of nuclear brinksmanship: the Cuban Missile Crisis. The high school treatment focuses on the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the differing lessons that Khrushchev and Kennedy drew from that incident (e.g., Khrushchev believed Kennedy to be weak), as well as the increasingly strident (and scary!) rhetoric and military posturing that unfolded during October 1962.
But arguably the most frightening part of the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t Khrushchev and Kennedy rattling sabers at one another; it was the “B-59 submarine incident”.
Here’s Edward Wilson in the Guardian:
As these dramas ratcheted tensions beyond breaking point, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear weapon.
The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that the depth charges were non-lethal “practice” rounds intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface. The Beale was joined by other US destroyers who piled in to pummel the submerged B-59 with more explosives. The exhausted Savitsky assumed that his submarine was doomed and that world war three had broken out. He ordered the B-59’s ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.
If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporised the Randolf, the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations – more than half the UK population would have died.
The decision not to start world war three was not taken in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the sweltering control room of a submarine. The launch of the B-59’s nuclear torpedo required the consent of all three senior officers aboard. [Vasili] Arkhipov was alone in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov’s reputation was a key factor in the control room debate. The previous year the young officer had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to save a submarine with an overheating reactor. That radiation dose eventually contributed to his death in 1998.
That anecdote should send chills down your spine. One man – one lone dissenter – changed the course of history and arguably saved the world.
But that wasn’t even the only time during the Cold War that such an incident happened, in which a lone individual had to exercise good judgment instead of assuming the worst.
There was also Stanislav Petrov, “the man who may have saved the world” in 1983. Here’s the BBC:
Thirty years ago, on 26 September 1983, the world was saved from potential nuclear disaster.
In the early hours of the morning, the Soviet Union’s early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States. Computer readouts suggested several missiles had been launched. The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.
But duty officer Stanislav Petrov – whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches – decided not to report them to his superiors, and instead dismissed them as a false alarm.
This was a breach of his instructions, a dereliction of duty. The safe thing to do would have been to pass the responsibility on, to refer up.
But his decision may have saved the world.
“I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it,” he told the BBC’s Russian Service 30 years after that overnight shift.
“Twenty-three minutes later I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief,” he says with a smile.
Now, 30 years on, Mr Petrov thinks the odds were 50-50. He admits he was never absolutely sure that the alert was a false one.
He says he was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education. “My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders,” he told us.
So, he believes, if somebody else had been on shift, the alarm would have been raised.
And, in cases where there were no heroes to be found, there was instead sheer dumb luck:
On June 3, 1980, at about two-thirty in the morning, computers at the National Military Command Center, beneath the Pentagon…issued an urgent warning: the Soviet Union had just launched a nuclear attack on the United States. The Soviets had recently invaded Afghanistan, and the animosity between the two superpowers was greater than at any other time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
U.S. Air Force ballistic-missile crews removed their launch keys from the safes, bomber crews ran to their planes, fighter planes took off to search the skies, and the Federal Aviation Administration prepared to order every airborne commercial airliner to land.
President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asleep in Washington, D.C., when the phone rang. His military aide, General William Odom, was calling to inform him that two hundred and twenty missiles launched from Soviet submarines were heading toward the United States. Brzezinski told Odom to get confirmation of the attack. A retaliatory strike would have to be ordered quickly; Washington might be destroyed within minutes. Odom called back and offered a correction: twenty-two hundred Soviet missiles had been launched.
Brzezinski decided not to wake up his wife, preferring that she die in her sleep. As he prepared to call Carter and recommend an American counterattack, the phone rang for a third time. Odom apologized—it was a false alarm. An investigation later found that a defective computer chip in a communications device at norad headquarters had generated the erroneous warning. The chip cost forty-six cents.
Or take this incident from 1961, where the U.S. military came within a whisker of detonating a massive bomb over North Carolina:
The accident happened when a B-52 bomber got into trouble, having embarked from Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro for a routine flight along the East Coast. As it went into a tailspin, the hydrogen bombs it was carrying became separated. One fell into a field near Faro, North Carolina, its parachute draped in the branches of a tree; the other plummeted into a meadow off Big Daddy’s Road.
Jones found that of the four safety mechanisms in the Faro bomb, designed to prevent unintended detonation, three failed to operate properly. When the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, and it was only that final, highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity. “The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52,” Jones concludes.
Let’s put it bluntly: this is insanity. I feel as if we’re in collective denial about what almost happened over the last 60 years: that fully grasping the reality is too terrifying to contemplate, and thus we sink further into our blissful ignorance. If we understood how close we’ve come to the edge, why do we persist?
And the sheer number of coincidences that have permitted us to emerge unscathed seems ludicrously high. Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Rick and Morty recently, but I’m reminded of the multiverse theory. Maybe the only reason I’m writing this blogpost is that the versions of myself in those other, parallel universes – in which the coin flipped heads instead of tails, in which the defective computer chip remained undetected, in which the man who tracked enemy missile launches had a military education instead of a civilian one, and in which Vasili Arkhipov had not felt so brave that day – aren’t around to commit their stories to humble politics blogs.
I’m reminded of all of this in reading the alternately fascinating and terrifying account in The New Yorker of our modern-day Cuban Missile Crisis: the increasingly belligerent rhetorical war between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. I find this paragraph haunting:
Brinkmanship, according to Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who pioneered the theory of nuclear deterrence, is the art of “manipulating the shared risk of war.” In 1966, he envisaged a nuclear standoff as a pair of mountain climbers, tied together, fighting at the edge of a cliff. Each will move ever closer to the edge, so that the other begins to fear that he might slip and take both of them down. It is a matter of creating the right amount of fear without losing control. Schelling wrote, “However rational the adversaries, they may compete to appear the more irrational, impetuous, and stubborn.” But what if the adversaries are irrational, impetuous, and stubborn?
Someone has to be sober-minded. If it is not the president, then it must be the security advisor, or the submarine captain, or the duty officer. We are, in essence, placing our fates in the hands of our modern-day Arkhipovs and Petrovs, and our faith in the idea that the “deep state” will curb the excesses of the actual one.