NUCLEAR WARNuclear War: Does It Take Luck or Reasoning to Avoid It? Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis, 60 Years On

Published 4 October 2022

Sixty years ago, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John Kennedy told his cabinet that he estimated the odds of an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union to be “somewhere between one in three and even.” How close we are to a nuclear war with Russia today? It is hard to tell. Deliberate escalation may be unlikely, and we may avoid the worst-case scenario. However, there are many situations that could unintentionally lead to disaster.

The United States and the Soviet Union came dangerously close to war in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. Just ahead of its 60th anniversary, Russian president Vladimir Putin is issuing nuclear threats following the unexpectedly poor performance of his troops in Ukraine. The invasion poses a new kind of challenge to European security, but as in 1962, tensions between Russia and the west are rising.

Talking of use of nuclear weapons, the US defense secretary Lloyd Austin recently said that Putin could make “another decision”. US teams have been exploring possible responses to a nuclear attack, it has emerged.

Journalists ask: “How close we are to nuclear war?.” It’s hard to tell. Deliberate escalation may be unlikely, and we may avoid the worst-case scenario. However, there are many situations that could unintentionally lead to disaster.

The Cuban missile crisis cannot teach us how to avert war – it shows us that, once tensions are ratcheted up, this comes down to luck. Instead, we should learn from the crisis, the nearest the world has got to nuclear war, that the very existence of nuclear weapons always invites catastrophe.

We have been lucky to avoid nuclear war so far. If the nuclear crisis in Ukraine is averted, we will have been lucky again. The key lesson of Cuba is don’t mistake luck in Ukraine for reassurance that nuclear war in the 21st century is impossible.

Learning from History
On October 14, 1962, a US spy plane captured photographs of Soviet missile launch sites under construction in Cuba. Missiles launched from Cuba would be within range of much of the US mainland. In response, US president John F. Kennedy imposed a naval blockade of Cuba.

This was intended to prevent Soviet nuclear weapons reaching the Caribbean island. Kennedy demanded that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev remove the weapons. Khrushchev refused.

Over the days that followed, the two leaders traded private appeals and public demands, urging each other to back down. On October 26, Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro wrote to Khrushchev, asking him to attack the US. On October 27, Soviet antiaircraft missiles shot down a US spy plane over Cuba.