5 times World War III almost began
World War III has always been a possibility. A vague, cloudy concept fastened to a non-specific time in the future where the world powers do the unthinkable and thrust themselves into global conflict once more. Although many armed encounters have shattered the original post-war European project centred around peace, social justice and harmony, none of them have been big enough to kick-start the Third World War. But most people have no idea just how close we’ve come to it in the past.
While we all know that the war we all dread could always be around the corner, what people don’t know is that governments across the globe have been moments away from pressing the red button countless times - and most of the time for completely ridiculous reasons. From faulty computer chips to Minnesota to scientific experiments, these five incidents show that we should all expect war at any time in any place for any reason whatsoever.
1. The 46 cent computer chip
On June 3 1980 at about 2.30am, computers within the National Military Command Centre, beneath the Pentagon at the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command, issued a dramatic warning. The Soviet Union had just launched a nuclear attack on the United States. Alarms sounded and personal at NORAD flew into a state of “absolute panic” as their computer screens appeared to show hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missile lifting off and heading towards targets in the continental United States.
The two superpowers were at a particularly turbulent moment in their relationship; the socialist state had recently invaded Afghanistan, almost immediately assuming complete military and political control over large portions of the country, much to the despair of America’s government which devised numerous measures in order to compel them to withdraw. But no one could have predicted this.
And they were completely right to be so surprised, because a nuclear attack wasn’t happening in reality. As the United States quickly planned to launch 10 interceptor fighter planes, get President Carter - who was nowhere to be found - on an escape plane and launch a retaliatory strike with missiles, it came to light that the hundreds of missiles were fluctuating in numbers and had suddenly disappeared from the screen. Three days later, it was found that a defective computer chip that cost forty-six cents had generated the terrifying warning, almost - but not quite - starting a world war.
2. Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis is often described as the closest the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to nuclear conflict. Many people across the world feared the worst after the USSR deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Soon after President Kennedy announced in a dramatic televised appearance that a blockade would be established around the island in order to stop boats arriving, charging the Soviet Union with subterfuge and outright deception. He claimed it was a “clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace.”
The biggest US troop invasion force since D-Day gathered in Florida in preparation for war and the US Strategic Air Command was ordered to Defcon (Defence Condition) 2 - the highest level it has ever reached. In addition, American bombers were reportedly in the air 24 hours a day carrying nuclear weapons, each one being given a target and being told to launch at a moment’s notice.
It truly looked like America was moments away from War - until Soviet leader Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter offering an agreement. It stated that they would remove missiles in return for the Americans removing the blockade, as well as a promise not to invade the island without direct provocation. Luckily for people everywhere, Kennedy accepted the offer and World War III was avoided by the skin of everyone’s teeth yet again.
3. B-59 Submarine
This is the story that shows that one man really can save the world. It begins with the Soviet B-59 submarine - armed with a nuclear weapon - holding underwater near the U.S blockade line close to Cuba. But things got dramatic when an American ship began to drop non-lethal “practice" depth charges on the submarine attempting to get them to resurface.
The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky had no way of knowing that the warning shots were not intended to provoke and took them as a genuine fire that marked the beginning of War. Ordering a nuclear missile launch, it looked like the beginning of the end.
If it wasn’t for Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, that is. The captain needed the permission of two senior officers in order to launch the missiles; he got permission from the first, but Arkhipov refused. Instead, he convinced them to resurface and request orders from Moscow, where they discovered that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding that had culminated in one of the most dangerous days in history. Ultimately, if you were born before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov may have saved your life.
4. The Norwegian rocket incident
In January of 1995, a Russian radar crew spotted a fast moving object above the Barents Sea at Russia's northern border. Believing that it was a missile that they couldn’t identify, they watched as the object separated into several sections, their trajectory aimed towards Moscow.
In the capital city, a signal went to the briefcases which accompanied President Boris Yeltsin and top defence officials. Attack guidelines stated that Russians were supposed to detect attacks, assess them and reach a decision on retaliation within 10 minutes; they had only five left to determine what to do.
Just after an urgent radio contact was made with Russian submarine commanders and the military issued orders to the Strategic Forces to prepare to receive the launch command, something odd happened. The flying objects suddenly fell into the sea.
Hours later they learnt that a team of Norwegian and American scientists had launched a from the Andøya Rocket Range off the northwestern coast of Norway with the aim of carrying scientific equipment to study the aurora borealis over Svalbard. The Russian government had been notified weeks earlier the launch was coming, but no one had bothered to tell the radar crew
5. Did a Minnesotan bear almost start a War?
It was the height of the Cold War in 1962, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when American spy planes caught images of Soviet missile silos under construction on the island nation of Cuba, less than 100 miles from the continental United States. Tensions built as both sides prepared for battle.
Two squadrons of Delta Darts were transferred to the Volk Air Base with the aim of intercepting any Soviet bombers approaching the US from Canada and shooting them down; for the first time ever, each jet carried a single nuclear rocket meaning that whatever battle began could be one of the most dangerous yet.
About midnight on October 25, a guard at a Duluth air base spotted a shadowy figure climbing the fence. He immediately shot at the intruder, setting off the sabotage alarm, which was wired up to alarm other nearby bases. But at the Volk Base, an electrical fault meant that the wrong alarm went off. It apparently triggered the one alarm no one ever wanted to hear: the alarm that ordered the fighter pilots to begin to intercept incoming enemy bombers.
But as pilots ran to their planes and prepared for take-off, it was all revealed to have been a false alarm. Fortunately, an officer at the Volk Base had contacted Duluth to ask for confirmation of the scramble order and was informed that it was a fake attack. Over 25 years later the shadowy figure in question which set off the alarm in the first place was apparently revealed to have been a bear.
So could a bear seriously be responsible for almost ending the world as we know it? It has never been made completely clear whether this story is a heavily rumoured exaggeration or plain reality, but it’s an equally fabulous - and horrifying - story nonetheless.
I don’t know about you, but knowing that we’ve actually come that close to World War III in the past makes me pretty nervous about what’s to come in the future. All we can do is cross our fingers and hope the governments have learnt their lesson.