My story takes place centuries in the future, in the year 2567. Over 600 years ago, during 1962, an all out nuclear war broke out. Most modern day historians believe it to have occurred in autumn, but whatever happened, it caused the United States and Soviet Union to go into nuclear war, destroying everyone, and everything, in a RAGING INFERNO OF ATOMIC FLAME

You and I would refer to this event as the Cuban missile crisis

My story takes place in an alt-universe where the CMC went hot, and all out nuclear war commenced. I want to make my story as grounded as possible, so my question is, what is the smallest change needed to turn the CMC into a nuclear crisis?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Renan, Ryan_L, JohnWDailey, Ash, ArtOfCode Oct 23 at 1:57

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – James Oct 23 at 3:12
up vote 70 down vote accepted

Not Much

Or, more specifically, one person making one decision could easily have done it.

That person is Vasili Arkhipov. During the crisis, he was the second-in-command on a Russian submarine, the B-59. On board this ship, there had to be a unanimous vote to use nuclear weapons - The captain, the political officer, and Arkhipov. The B-59 was being depth charged by US ships in an attempt to get it to the surface. With no communication, and thinking they were being attacked, the captain wanted to fire a nuclear torpedo. The political officer agreed. Arkhipov, who was also commander of the submarine flotilla and who had gained stature in the K-19 incident earlier that year, voted no. He was well-respected and also of equal rank to the B-59's captain, which allowed him to convince them to do otherwise.

If he voted to agree, they would have launched a nuclear torpedo. It would be extremely easy for the US to retaliate and for things to escalate.

Simply because one man made one decision.

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    Yeah, it's real. And terrifying. There was also an incident where a Soviet early warning system erroneously showed the US launching missiles, and one guy decided "Nah, this is an error, I'm just going to igore it" – Andon Oct 20 at 23:48
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    It's worth noting this was a tactical weapon - it wouldn't have immediately meant missiles flying at Washington and Moscow. That would definitely have been on the table though. – Cadence Oct 20 at 23:55
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    @RobertPaul That's an entirely separate question, which I don't have the knowledge for (But some of the others might). I encourage you to ask it. It's probably a lot more variable than you (Or I!) think. – Andon Oct 21 at 0:06
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    @RobertPaul The number of WW3 bullets we collectively dodged during the cold war is enough to keep one from sleeping at night sometimes. – Shadur Oct 21 at 14:25
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    @RobertPaul "That much power over life and death should not be in the hands of one person." In fairness, the situation described is that several people had to agree to the use of a nuke, and one dissenter was enough to prevent it. – Carcer Oct 21 at 18:03

Reflecting on @Andon's answer: One man's life could have done it.

Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr.

During the Cuban Missle Crisis Major Anderson was flying U2 recon missions over cuba. Despite being famously told in the movie 13 Days to not be shot down by special assistant to President Kennedy Kenneth O'Donnell, he was shot down.

And died....

From the above History channel link...

For Kennedy and Khrushchev, Anderson’s death crystallized their realization that the crisis was rapidly spiraling out of their control. “It was at that very moment—not before or after—that father felt the situation was slipping out of his control,” Khrushchev’s son Sergei would later write. Kennedy worried that retaliatory airstrikes would inevitably result in all-out war. “It isn’t the first step that concerns me, but both sides escalating to the fourth or fifth step and we don’t go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so,” he told his advisers.

That night, the president dispatched his brother to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and offer a top-secret deal to peacefully end the standoff. The Soviets agreed to remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba, while the Americans pledged to withdraw intermediate nuclear missiles from Turkey and not invade Cuba. The tensest moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended, with Major Anderson the only combat casualty in a standoff that had the real possibility of killing millions. ...

“Anderson’s death escalated the crisis significantly,” said Upcountry History Museum historian Courtney Tollison. “It could have provoked a cascading series of events that if you follow to their logical conclusions lead to a nuclear World War III. Instead, his death was a jolt to Kennedy and Khrushchev and pushed the crisis to a point where they had to take one of two paths, both of which had clear consequences.”

Had Anderson not been shot down, or had he been taken alive as a prisoner, the crisis could have easily turned to all-out war.

Alternatively...

  1. Had Khrushchev rather than Lieutenant General Stepan Grechko ordered Anderson shot down...

  2. Had Kennedy failed to correctly guess that Khrushchev hadn't made the decision to shoot Anderson down...

The war would have/could have started.

  • I could see this easily going another direction, too. He's shot down, but no deal is made and things... go badly. History does not do the Cuban Missile Crisis the justice it deserves! – Andon Oct 21 at 0:09
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    As I recall, one of Castro's aides claimed that Castro himself triggered the shootdown. In this telling, Castro was angry that he had effectively been sidelined while the two major powers played chicken. So he paid a visit to the Russian air defense HQ, and asked what was being done about the U2. On being told that the decision had not been made, but a simple button-push would do the job if necessary, he walked over and pushed the button. I've no idea if this has been debunked, but it does catch the attention. – WhatRoughBeast Oct 21 at 1:59
  • It's not quite that simple. Anderson's death would have been considered, as it was obviously in the real world, so it's not the trigger that firing a nuclear torpedo would have been. At that stage the situation would have really escalated out of control. Both sides had time to reflect and see they were on the verge of losing control. A nuclear torpedo explodes and everything's out of control. – a4android Oct 21 at 5:38
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    @WhatRoughBeast the whole story stinks of invention. Even if the Cuban radar system gave Castro a warning that there was an U-2 plane going around, the time needed to get that information to Castro and then Castro inside the Russian AD HQ means that by that time the U-2 would be back in the USA. And the "press a button to launch missiles" instead of an actual radio (remember, no internet back then), well... Of course, it would only make sense fabricating this story if there were a considerable political group in the USA that wanted to show Castro in the worse way possible... – SJuan76 Oct 21 at 22:42
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    @WhatRoughBeast - I agree with SJuan76 about the plausibility of that story. However, it is known that Castro had ringed each of the nuclear missile sites, which were strictly manned by Soviets, by his own people and they were demanding/begging their Soviet comrades to fire. Also, Castro himself had begged the Soviets to launch a first strike; I saw translations of the telegrams myself at Georgetown U website (but can't find them now) several years back. If Castro had had the power, he WOULD have nuked the US. But Krushchev, who apparently had the final authority, chose not to fire. – Henry Oct 22 at 21:53

To back AlexP up, it may in fact be very difficult to start an all out nuclear war of the type often envisioned.

Take a look at this list of nuclear close calls. At least two of them were prevented by only one person, and others were prevented by only a handful. So – what, are we just getting lucky or something?

The truth is, it's really hard to start a nuclear war.

The reasons for this is many-fold. Nuclear weapons are greatly feared, especially by those involved in actually using them – and there are a lot of people involved (from the president, to generals, to pilots, to missile crews, to submarine captains, to the comms officers relaying orders, to the individuals actually pressing the button, and many more) – and any one of those people could prevent at least one launch. In a sense, firing a nuke must be agreed upon unanimously by everyone in the chain of command from the president to launch technician – any single 'no' will result in the delay or prevention of a launch.

There's a famous study called "Men Against Fire" written by a well respected military historian that indicates that only about 15% of soldiers actually:

  • fire their weapons,
  • at the enemy,
  • with the intent to kill

when ordered to. Now, there is some debate about the study's methodology, but when you think about all the people involved in using nuclear weapons, even if that study is overly conservative, there's a high likelihood that many perfectly functional nukes would not be fired.

The study implies there's an 85% chance that any one person in that chain of command will say 'no' to a launch order. If there are just 3 people between the launch order and the nuke itself, you're looking at only a 0.3% chance of a launch. And hey – maybe the situation is different for nukes, maybe American military discipline is enough to overcome that in this case, or maybe individuals won't say no as long as they're not directly responsible for the launch. All the same, the odds of a full nuclear launch being successfully executed by all involved are pretty slim.

Moreover, with all the false alarms and the 70 some odd years without a nuclear holocaust, some generals complain that many missle crews wouldn't be prepared to retaliate in the case of an actual nuclear attack.

All of this is to say that if the US or Russia ordered a full nuclear attack of their entire arsenal, only a minority of their weapons would actually be fired. So the world ending in 3 to 7 minutes seems unlikely

That said, and to answer the question, the key would be to have the crisis escalate gradually. It's much easier to order a launch when there's actual fighting happening. It's much easier to launch a nuke when your home town has already been hit.

American intelligence indicated there were at most five nuclear missiles in Cuba. In reality, there were scores. I think the simplest change would be to have had the Americans escalate slowly with either conventional airstrikes or an invasion force (as many generals were recommending). We know Soviet commanders on the ground were authorized to use tactical nukes, so once they felt they would be overrun, it becomes much more likely that they would go nuclear.

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    The point about soldiers not firing personal weapons at other soldiers is much less relevant in this situation. The issue is that many people will not fire at other people they can see and identify with. They do not have the same empathy with "theoretical" enemies they cannot see, which is why the US started to emphasise the use of artillery and airstrikes as the main ways of inflicting casualties - people operating mortars and artillery are not known for "aiming off" or refusing to pull the lanyard. The same lack of "personal" involvement would apply to those deciding to launch nukes. – KerrAvon2055 Oct 21 at 9:02
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    @Elliot_Schrock You should read the article you posted - the 'study' you cite is a single mans account of a battle that went 'viral' at the time and was severely criticized and contradicted by almost every other source. – Skyler Oct 22 at 17:34
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    There's no debate about the methodology behind "Men Against Fire" - S.L.A Marshall simply couldn't have done the interviews he claimed to have done. That doesn't necessarily mean he was wrong (see "On Killing", David Grossman). However, that's individual soldiers. Equip privates with nuclear rifles and WWII-era training and most won't shoot at the enemy. Heavy weapons, crew-served weapons, artillery, and aircraft were not affected by the shooting issue. Nukes would be on the artillery side of the line, and the 85% would not apply. – David Thornley Oct 22 at 19:35
  • I respectfully disagree and urge you to read The Doomsday Machine by Ellsberg and Command and Control by Schlosser and study the views of Curtis LeMay. You will have nightmares. – Martin Schröder Oct 22 at 20:12

In 1961 the American Empire deployed one squadron of 15 PGM-19 Jupiter nuclear-tipped medium-range ballistic missiles in Turkey, at bases around the ancient city of Smyrna, which the Turks call İzmir. This was perceived as an aggressive maneuver by the Russian Empire, which at that time did not have any effective means of defending itself against an attack with medium-range ballistic missiles.

In reponse to the American deployment of MRBMs in Turkey (and Italy), Russia started a very visibile program of deploying a number of R-12 Dvina (which the Americans called SS-4 Sandal) in Cuba, with the capability of hitting most American territory; they also embarked on a program of preparing launch sites for their intermediate-range R-14 Chusovaya (aka "SS-5 Skean" in American materials), which, if deployed, could hit targets in all the contiguous territory of the U.S.A.

The American leadership realised that the time window when they could have started a nuclear war with a reasonable hope of success had closed. After a few days of tense negotiations, which, among others, resulted in the establishment of the famous Moscow–Washington hotline, the two superpowers agreed to dismantle their advanced missile bases -- Russia took back its missiles from Cuba, in exchange for America taking back its missiles from Turkey.

The truth is that by 1962 in was already too late for the U.S.A. to launch a successful nuclear war against the U.S.S.R. The Americans had had their opportunity in the mid-1950s, when they really had overwhelming nuclear superiority; but it so happened during those few years when America could have indeed won a nuclear war with Russia, they had Dwight D. Eisenhower as president; Eisenhower did not want war, so there was no war. And then the window closed, and neither superpower could hope to start a nuclear war and win in any meaningful sense.

But what about 1962? What could have happened in 1962 to precipitate a nuclear confrontation? In real life, nothing. The Americans never even considered a nuclear response, and the Russians knew very well that they could not hope to launch a nuclear attack against the U.S.A. and survive. But in fantasy?

In fantasy one could imagine the members of Kennedy's EXCOMM falling prey to the panic which permeated American media, or being co-opted by those congressmen who agitated for a muscular reponse. But I don't think that even a nuclear attack on Cuba would have made the Soviets retaliate with nuclear strikes against the U.S.A. An attack on Russian targets would have been necessary; how to make the American national command authority lose its head and order missile launches against targets on Russian territory is left for the storyteller to imagine.

The good news is that at that point in time the two superpowers did not yet have the capability of killing everybody on Earth; while most interesting parts of the U.S.A., western Europe, and European Russia would have been destroyed, most of Asia, all of Africa, Central and South America, and Australia would have escaped with minimal ill effects. Great point of departure for an alternate history novel sequence.

  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Beach_(novel) is based on "the capability of killing everybody on Earth" in 1963. – manassehkatz Oct 21 at 2:13
  • @manassehkatz: On the Beach is a beautiful piece of fiction. The point is? – AlexP Oct 21 at 3:26
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    @Rekesoft The USA would have retaliated with all out nuclear war - as this was the only plan they had at that time. – Martin Schröder Oct 22 at 20:15
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    @manassehkatz - I've read On the Beach a couple of times and if I recall correctly, it was the immense clouds of fallout that threatened and finally killed the last of the human survivors in Australia, not the actual missile strikes. I don't know if Shute was scientifically correct in predicting that the fallout would eventually cover the earth but he was a renowned aeronautical engineer so it wouldn't have been out of the question for him to research this and present it accurately if he wanted to. – Henry Oct 22 at 22:16
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    @Henry Our models of fallout distribution are like our models of climate change: completely unreliable except that we all agree the final result is nasty. But our models of climate change are continually improving (to worse predictions still) thanks to, well, more global warming data, but our models of fallout are frozen in the sixties. However, the problem with the radioactive apocallypses scenarios is not the amount of fallout or how widespread it is, but how dangerous it is. The most probable scenario is a tiny augment of the background radiation, with no major effects on health. – Rekesoft Oct 23 at 7:13

You might want to look into a movie titled The Bedford Incident, made in 1963. In this movie, a US sub chaser and a soviet sub mutually destroy each other, but cooler heads prevent an escalation to full scale war. And of course there's Doctor Strangelove, where a full scale war does break out.

In the actual crisis, the soviet sub did not fire a tactical nuclear weapon, as @Andon pointed out. The firing of that nuclear torpedo might well have triggered a series of escalations for two important reasons. First, the "nuclear threshold" would have been crossed and the US would certainly have considered a retaliation using tactical nuclear weapons. Second, an attack on a warship or merchant ships has signaled US entry into war in the War of 1812, Spanish American War, and World War II. Those two psychological factors could easily have signaled the beginning of a war.

Also, you have to consider President Kennedy's public announcement that any missile launched from Cuba would be treated as a direct attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response.

And finally, you might want to look into the post mortem analysis conducted jointly by US and Soviet officials as to what might have happened differently. I don't know when this was held, but I know Robert McNamara was part of the US team. Both teams concluded that we came very, very close to all out war.

There are a total of four known incidents that occured during the Cuban Missile Crisis that would have sparked a Nuclear War. The most likely was the sub incident detailed by @Andon discussed.

Also during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a series of Bombers, armed with Nuclear Bombs, was staged at a small runway at a U.S. Air Base when an emergency alert started the scramble of the planes. The Alert was soon identified as an intruder alert, not an incoming attack alert as the planes were almost ready to take off... the crisis was averted by an air-force personel driving his jeep onto the run way in the path of a plane while the situation was stood down. The intruder was later identified to be a bear playing with the AFB's fence, setting off the alarm.

Later that same night, a routine polar recon flight flew off course after the pilot was disoriented. He had become turned around and flew into Russian Airspace while trying to get correct co-ordinates from his base. His radio alerted him to a Russian Music station broadcasting as his first sign of trouble. Russian fighters were scrambled for intercept but the lost pilot was able to make it back home. None other than President Kennedy was briefed on the situation the next morning, and he was not at all happy with the pilot.

Finally, the U.S. early warning systems were tipped off to an attack inbound from Cuba during some point early during the crisis. The problem was found to be with the calibration of the EWS's new directioning. Prior to the knowledge of missiles in Cuba, the EWS was pointed towards to north pole, as it was the shortest flight path between central Russia's missile fields and the States. These systems were shifted to look southward when Cuba became a problem in great haste and calibration issues occurred. The New Jersey station detecting the inbound launch were scrambling out notices to important people when the missile started drifting over the Atlantic and away from the U.S. Turns out, they did not detect a Cuba originating launch, but a NASA launch from Cape Canaveral. In all the confusion, no one in the government thought it was a good time to tell NASA to delay their rocket launches for the time being.

One of the most serious but less-known trigger-points during the Cuban Missile Crisis was the fact the Soviets had approx 100 tactical nuclear weapons already deployed on Cuba.

Soviet commanders on the island did not need permission or launch codes from Moscow to fire their weapons, and were already positioned near Guantanamo with instructions to defend in this way.

American military leaders were unaware of these. During the crisis, military leadership argued repeatedly for a full-scale marine invasion of Cuba -- for which they had already drawn up plans, and were eager to execute.

An invasion by the Americans would have been met with a nuclear strikes on Guantanamo Naval Station and American fleets. With invasion fleets destroyed, the only action remaining to the Americans would be an immediate nuclear counter-response.

As mentioned in other answers there were also several other potential trigger-points: a nuclear-armed submarine under attack, a spy plane shot down, Castro's request to the USSR to launch a pre-emptive strike, as well as the naval blockade.

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