3 Times When The World Came Dangerously Close To World War III

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9:00 am 9 May, 2018


“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” – Albert Einstein.

Ironically, the very nuclear weapons that can destroy the entire humanity at once has also been instrumental in the long peace that we are experiencing since the culmination of World War II. But experts are of the opinion that the next big war is overdue, at least statistically.

In the last 70 years, despite the enormous conflicts, the world hasn’t plunged into World War III, but there were times when it came dangerously close to it.

As recently as in the month of April 2018, when US and allies attacked Syria over the charges of storing chemical weapons and confronted directly against Russia, backed by China and Iran, the world was forced to expect the worst case scenario. But fortunately, nothing has happened yet. Similarly, when Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov was assassinated in Turkey on 19 December 2016, the incident was likened with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914, which was the immediate cause of World War I. But fortunately again, this didn’t lead to the consequences like the case of Sarajevo Crises.


Here are 3 more times when the world came dangerously close to World War III but the world is still here.

1. Norwegian rocket incident

Early in the morning of January 25, 1995, scientists of USA and Norway jointly launched a Black Brant XII four-stage sounding rocket off the northwestern coast of Norway. The purpose of the launching was to study the aurora borealis over Svalbard and it contained scientific equipment.

But as the rocket reached an altitude of about 1500 kilometers, entering an air corridor that could even lead to Moscow, the capital of Russia, the Russian authorities were alarmed. To add to their distress was the fact that the rocket was very similar in appearance and movement like that of US Navy’s nuclear powered Trident missile. Russia felt an imminent threat and fearing that a high altitude nuclear attack might just blind the radar system, Russian nuclear forces were put on high alert. The ‘nuclear briefcase’ was automatically activated and Russian president Boris Yeltsin activated his ‘nuclear keys’. This is the only known case when ‘nuclear keys’ were ever activated. However, he didn’t order retaliation and decided to wait.



Fortunately, the Russian observers, after eight minutes since the first warning, realized that the rocket was moving away from the route leading towards Moscow, and thus launching of nuclear arsenals were averted. It was later known that the 30 countries were notified about the launch of the rocket previously but the information hadn’t had reached the radar technicians.

2. The Cuban missile crisis

Soon after seizing power in Cuba by the leftists under Fidel Castro in 1962, the Caribbean nation sided with USSR. Over time, it grew increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union for its military and economic aid. It was also a time when US and USSR were engaged in the Cold War.

The US was also at this time setting up their nuclear bases in Western Europe and Turkey which made the Soviets very uneasy. So, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev played the gamble of sending nuclear warheads on the soil of Cuba secretly as retaliation. But American spy plane, on October 14, 1962, while passing over Cuba, was able to detect and photograph a nuclear medium-range missile being assembled just 90 miles away from the USA. On October 16, the then president of US John F. Kennedy was briefed about the development. Kennedy, on October 22 notified the Americans about this. It was now clear that the US could go to any extent to safeguard its national security. Soon, US established a full-scale naval blockade around Cuba to prevent more nuclear warheads from reaching Cuba. When on October 24, Soviet ships arrived near Cuba, they were confronted by the US Navy and for 13 days there was a standoff between the US and USSR, sending the world into the speculation of a full-scale nuclear war.


Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

But due to sensible leadership, USSR decided to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba on the conditions that US wouldn’t invade Cuba and the nuclear missiles of US from Turkey and Italy should be withdrawn, which were readily accepted and a world war was avoided.

3. 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident

In 1983, 44-years-old lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces Stanislav Petrov was on duty in a secret command station outside Moscow when he received signals on the computers that there was a nuclear attack on Russia by the USA. It was his immediate task to let the military know about the development, which in turn would set a full-scale nuclear counter-attack. But he did something that was totally in contrary of what was unexpected of him. He didn’t inform the military about it.


Stanislav Petrov at his home in 2015 near Moscow at the age of 77 years. NPR

In a 2013 interview with BBC, Petrov revealed that he had all the data suggesting an attack and if only he had forwarded the reports, no one would have questioned him anything. But instead of calling the top commander, he remained calm and called the army headquarters to report that the computers were malfunctioning. He then waited, with all the fears of the world in his mind, wondering what if it was indeed a real strike and the lives of millions of people and the security of the country were on the line. But when after twenty-three minutes he didn’t receive any news of an attack, he was convinced that he was correct in assessment about a computer glitch.

A later investigation revealed that it was actually sunlight reflecting on the clouds that the Soviet satellites had mistakenly identified as inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Petrov, who died in 2017 at the age of 77 years, will forever be remembered as the man who saved the world single-handedly.


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