Close calls of the nuclear age

During the 39 years (or 468 months) from 1946-1985 there was a serious threat of nuclear weapons use for 107 months (that is, 23 percent of the time); a serious threat of nuclear war which would destroy most of the U.S., the USSR, and Europe for a total of 55 months (12 percent of the time); and a serious threat of global extinction through nuclear winter during all major crises since March 1959, a total of 38.5 months or 8 percent of the time

By Ron Shirtliff (compiler); David Morgan (author) | 1997-01-01 12:00:00

David Morgan, President of Veterans Against Nuclear Arms, has presented in one well-researched document the chronology of nuclear brinkmanship since the birth of the bomb in 1945, a chilling history that carries on into the present and, alas, the future.

"Threats To Use Nuclear Weapons: The Sixteen Known Nuclear Crises of the Cold War, 1946-1985" presents in detail the reality which many of us have either known or suspected during our nuclear age. Nations with nuclear weapons will, as we know, threaten to use them, and as we also know, in some circumstances, actually use them. Morgan establishes, in fact, that we have approached that crisis, not once, but 16 times since the blasts that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those were, as we now know, minor bombs, and Morgan documents the times the use of the bigger ones were threatened.

In the introduction to the research paper Morgan writes:

This paper is an attempt to inform the public simply and clearly about the (16) very dangerous nuclear crises of the Cold War. Until these are widely understood, the great dangers of present policies will not be questioned and discussed. The U.S., with its Freedom of Information Act, is the least secretive of all the world's great powers. Much of the information in this paper has been made available by the benefit of this Act. Members of the public have thus been able to inform themselves of the way that nuclear weapons have threatened world security over the years.

There are 36,000 nuclear weapons in the world in 1996 and the threat of the destruction of civilization by these weapons remains very great. The more that nuclear weapons increase military power, the more they decrease national security. The only escape from this paradox is by the balanced reduction and eventual total abolition of these weapons on a rigid schedule. This is a matter of great urgency; the present lull in great power rivalry may not last long.

In his research paper, Morgan first summarizes the history of nuclear threat in chart form (Chart 1).

CrisisYearLengthThreat byStrategic weapons

1 IRAN I19461 dayU.S.400
2 YUGOSLAVIA19461 dayU.S.400
3 BERLIN I194815 monthsU.S.1200
4 KOREA195036 monthsU.S.400?
5 VIETNAM I195443 monthsU.S.1,200?
6 CHINA I19548 monthsU.S.1,200?
7 SUEZ19567 daysUSSR-U.S.2,10060
8 CHINA II19582 monthsU.S.3,000110
9 BERLIN II19594 monthsU.S.3,200175
10 BERLIN III19614 monthsU.S.3,600240
11 CUBAN19622 weeksUSSR-U.S.3,900300
12 VIETNAM II19693 monthsU.S.4,0001,400
13 JORDAN19702 weeksU.S.4,0001,800
14 ISRAEL197319 daysU.S.6,8002,200
15 IRAN II19806 monthsU.S.10,3126,846
16 FIRST STRIKE198324 monthsU.S.N-winter threat first recognized

Total 107 months of crisis

Morgan then groups the 16 nuclear crises into five historical periods, plus the current period (Chart 2).

Chart 2: nuclear crises of the cold war
Period 1: U.S. NUCLEAR WEAPONS MONOPOLY, 1945-1949
1945WWII ends with A-Bombings of Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9)
1946Iran and Yugoslavia, Crises #1 and #2
1948-49Berlin, Crisis #3
1949Soviets explode A-bomb. China goes Communist.
1950Korean War Crisis. Strong pressure on Truman and later Eisenhower to use A-Bomb.
1953U.S. tests the first H-Bomb.
1954Vietnam War, Crisis #4. Soviets test first H-Bomb.
1955China, Crisis #6.
1956Suez, Crisis #7.
1957USSR launches Sputnik, first satellite.
1958China again, Crisis #8.
1959Berlin again, Crisis #9.
1960U.S. launches first Polaris nuclear submarine.
1961Berlin for a third time, Crisis #10.
1962Cuba, Crisis #11 (see box)
Period 3: SCARED STRAIGHT, 1962-1969
1963Test Ban Treaty. Kennedy assassinated Nov. 22.
1964Khruschev ousted. China tests its first A-Bomb.
1967China tests its first H-Bomb.
1968Tet offensive in Vietnam.
Period 4: RELENTLESS ARMS RACE, 1969-1983
1969Vietnam again, Crisis #12.
1970Jordan, Crisis #13. U.S. develops MIRVs, multiple warhead ICBMs.
1971U.S. develops submarine-launched MIRVs.
1973Israel Yom Kippur war, Crisis #13. Soviets develop first MIRV for their ICBMs.
1974India explodes A-bomb.
1975fall of Saigon.
1976SDI ("Star Wars") secret funding begins.
1979USSR invades Afghanistan. Shah flees Iran, U.S. embassy seized.
1980Iran again, Crisis # 15. President Carter sanctions First Strike, PD59.
1981Reagan launches biggest arms drive in history - $1.6 trillion.
1982Swedish Academy Report says nuclear war would cause nuclear winter thus threatening most life on the earth.
1983-85First Strike, Crisis # 16 from Pershing II missile threat.
Period 5: END OF THE COLD WAR, 1985-91
1987Gorbachev and Reagan sign INF Treaty.
1988Gorbachev allows Polish Elections.
1989Gorbachev allows Berlin Wall to fall.
1991U.S. launches "Desert Storm." Gorbachev ousted. Yeltsin and leaders of Ukraine and White Russia meet and abolish the Soviet Union.
Period 6: POST COLD-WAR RE-GROUPINGS, 1991-1996
This is a time similar to Period 3. Effective nuclear arms control is needed to avoid repetition of Period 4 with dire results.

Morgan documents in considerable detail each of the 16 nuclear crises, with background material and commentary on the outcome. On pages 22 and 23 we present dossiers on two of these episodes: the Cuban Missile Crisis (of which many of us were aware at the time) and the First Strike crisis, which was more recently part of our consciousness but in a more diffused form. This is just a taste of the total frightening menu.

We have been fortunate in getting through all 16 of these crises without actually launching or stumbling into a nuclear war. The message is that we must take action while we can to get rid of nuclear weapons because there is no g uarantee that we can get safely through the crises which are bound to arise in the next half-century.

The complete document is available by email from Eric Fawcett at or on paper ($6 plus $3 postage and packing) from Science for Peace, University College, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 1A1.

Crisis #11: The Cuban Missile Crisis

1962: The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. stated the threat of nuclear attack against each other. At issue in the crisis was the right of the U.S.S.R. to match the U.S.'s medium-range nuclear-missile threat.


On April 17, 1961, 1,400 Cuban exiles invaded Cuba at Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) with U.S. support. Cubans defeated the invaders in two days.

Kennedy then approved Operation Mongoose. Actions: Several attempts to kill Castro, sabotage, arson, crop poisoning, and murder of Cuban civilians. The target date for Cuban "revolt" with U.S. military support was (ironically) October 1962. To defend Cuba, Khrushchev offered Castro nuclear-armed missiles to be installed secretly.

Crisis Events

Sunday, Oct. 14

Kennedy gets U-2 photos of Soviet missile bases in Cuba.

Wednesday, Oct. 17

16 missiles installed and would be ready to fire a week later. All of Joint Chiefs of Staff call for immediate attack. Gen. Le May, USAAF Chief of Staff tells Kennedy an attack is essential and that Soviets would not respond. Secretary of Defence McNamara and Robert Kennedy favored a blockade. Late in the afternoon, Soviet Ambassador Gromyko visited Kennedy (a pre-crisis appointment). Kennedy chose not to confront Gromyko with the missile evidence. This could have avoided the more dangerous public challenge and demand for a humiliating withdrawal that Kennedy made two days later. This also excluded U.S. allies from consultation, and led France to later quit NATO.

Monday, Oct. 22

Kennedy reveals the crisis (but not U.S. provocations such as Operation Mongoose) to Americans while on TV. Forty-two medium-range nuclear missiles were in Cuba already (Schlesinger), 25 Soviet cargo ships heading for Cuba towards 180 U.S. navy ships, 68 aircraft squadrons and eight aircraft carriers. Missile crews were on full alert. The B-52 bomber force was ordered into the air fully loaded with nuclear weapons. In Florida the largest U.S. invasion force since WW II was gathering.

Tuesday, Oct. 23

Khrushchev: "If U.S. Navy interferes with Soviet ships, necessary measures would be taken." Organization of American States gives U.S. full support.

Wednesday, Oct. 24

Quarantine goes into effect. Soviet ships approach the 500 mile zone. U-2 photos from 23rd show that missiles would be ready in a few days. Navy reports Soviet subs active. Twenty Soviet ships stopped or turned around. Six Soviet subs approach Cuba.

Friday, Oct. 26

First ship stopped and boarded (Marucla, Panamanian). Kennedy orders State Department to prepare a post-invasion government for Cuba. At 6:00 p.m. Khrushchev tells Kennedy that missiles in Cuba defensive and could be withdrawn if U.S. agreed not to invade Cuba and recalled its fleet.

Saturday, Oct. 27

A tougher Khrushchev proposal: missiles out and guarantees in Cuba must be matched with the same for U.S. missiles in Turkey. Joint Chiefs of Staff propose air strike on Monday followed by invasion. U-2 is shot down over Cuba by a Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM). The Joint Chiefs of Staff insist the SAM sites be bombed Sunday. Kennedy decides to agree to Khrushchev's Friday proposal.

Sunday, Oct. 28

At 10:00 a.m Khrushchev's reply: Missiles will be withdrawn.


Cuba was secured from U.S. covert attacks and invasion. Kennedy and Khrushchev nearly lost control of the military forces each had set in motion during this crisis.

Although the Cuban confrontation resulted in seven years without a crisis, weapons technology continued to develop until we entered the new era of first-strike fantasy, which Morgan calls the Relentless Arms Race and which culminated in Crisis #16 (see Worst Crisis, right).

Crisis #16: The Worst Crisis Of All: First Strike

1983-1985: The U.S. implied the threat of the use of nuclear weapons against the USSR. At issue in the crisis was U.S. preparation for first strike capability.


In the nuclear arms race the U.S. had always held a five to 10 year lead over the Soviet Union. In the 1980s a system for a first strike surprise attack on the USSR was nearly ready. It had three parts:

  1. Decapitation: The flat trajectory Pershing II missiles were extremely accurate and designed to "decapitate" (behead) the Soviet leadership. Flight time to Moscow from bases in West Germany was six minutes.
  2. Counterforce: It would be possible by the late 80's to knock out all known Soviet missiles on land and at sea with MX and Trident 2 missiles using the new very precise "Navstar" guidance system. In case a few Soviet missiles survived this First Strike, the U.S. needed a "shield."
  3. Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) or "Star Wars," was this enormously costly and incomplete "shield."

These very threatening plans meant that a world nuclear holocaust might result from a faulty Soviet radar warning. Six minutes gave the Soviets little time for analysis of U.S. intentions.

The Soviets understood all of these threats very clearly. On Oct. 26, 1983, Soviet Premier Andropov stated that Soviets would walk out at Geneva if the deployment of Pershing II and Cruise missiles began.

The first shipment of Tomahawk Cruise Missiles arrived in Britain Nov. 15. In spite of demonstrations by 400,000 Germans opposed to the deployment of medium-range missiles, on Nov. 30 the West German parliament voted 286 to 226 to accept the first shipment of nine Pershing II missiles on German soil.

Crisis Events

Dec. 1, 1983

Ramstein air base near Mannheim, West Germany. U.S. C-5 Galaxy transports deliver nine Pershing II missiles. These were then transported to the U.S. Army 56th Field Artillery Brigade base at Mutlangen, Geneva. Soviet negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky walks out of the meeting with U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze, ending nuclear arms negotiations and offering no resumption date.

Dec. 8, 1983

Four U.S. and four Soviet scientists meeting in Washington issued a statement predicting a nuclear winter that would kill all nuclear war survivors, even if only half the U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons were used.

March 11, 1985

Gorbachev elected General Secretary of the Central Committee by a margin of one vote over Grishin, a hardliner who would probably have escalated the arms race. This election may well prove to have been a critical event in world history.

March 15, 1985

Nuclear winter "that would wipe out all life on earth … is all the more reason to continue President Ronald Reagan's weapons build-up." (Richard Perle, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defence)

July 1985

Soviets stop nuclear tests.

Nov 19-20, 1985

Geneva: Gorbachev and Reagan meet; Cold War tensions ease progressively for the next two years, and the First Strike crisis also ends progressively during this period. Dec. 8, 1987, Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed in Washington by Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan. It will eliminate all medium and short range nuclear weapons.


Worst crisis of all ends; end of Cold War follows.

Selected and edited by Ron Shirtliff, Peace Magazine associate editor, Science for Peace member, and former professor of English at Ryerson Polytechnic University, Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1997

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1997, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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