5 The Cuban Missile Crisis
In October of 1962 an American spy plane flying over the communist island of Cuba spotted a number of short and intermediate range missiles supplied by Nikita Khrushchev’s USSR. A tense diplomatic standoff ensued, with the Kennedy administration forcefully insisting on the removal of the weapons, and the nation panicking, knowing nuclear warheads were a mere 90 miles off the Florida coast. While many people believe the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the two Cold War powers ever came to nuclear war, it was actually never Khrushchev’s aim to use the weapons against America. Other incidents actually came much closer to the brink of atomic attack.
4 America Almost Goes Nuclear on Itself
On January 23rd, 1961, the United States Air Force almost unleashed a nuclear weapon… on North Carolina. And this accidental explosion would have been from a hydrogen bomb 250 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. On that near-fateful day, a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber soaring over NC went out of control and into a flat spin followed by a breakup. The plane was carrying two nuclear weapons, both of which were inadvertently dropped. In one of the bombs, a MK 39 Mod 2, all but one of its safety measures failed to function, leaving the warhead perilously close to detonating in a Carolina meadow.
3 Pakistan and India Inched Toward the Brink
Decades of tensions between the bitter enemy states India and Pakistan almost boiled over the nuclear brink in the first years of the new millennium. It would have been the first direct confrontation between two countries armed with nuclear weapons; the results of such a conflict could have led to death on an unprecedented scale. Following an attack on its parliament headquarters that India blamed on Pakistan, a troop buildup began on both sides of the border. There were multiple skirmishes fought between the two sides, but thankfully cooler heads and international pressure prevailed, diffusing the situation before it went nuclear.
2 Nixon Considered Using Nukes in Vietnam
It was thanks to the cool head of Henry Kissinger that President Richard Nixon never pursued his desire to drop atomic weapons during the Vietnam War, and the world is better for that not happening. Nixon expressed his willingness to use nukes during a 1972 conversation; chillingly, he seemed to have been weighing their effect on the war as much as was he wondering how his reelection chances would be affected.
1 General MacArthur Calls for Nuclear Weapons During the Korean War
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, one of the heroes of the Pacific theater of WWII, might have gone down in history as a ruthless butcher had not President Truman sacked him. In the early days of the Korean War, MacArthur began to agitate for the use of atomic weapons. He had a plan that called for multiple tactical nuclear strikes, and had he gotten his way and been granted “commander’s discretion,” chances are the world would have seen not just two nuclear warheads dropped in 1945, but more than two dozen in 1950. And who knows if it would have stopped there: America would almost surely have faced retaliation from the North Korean ally, the Soviet Union.