That Was Too Close… Five Times Nuclear War Didn’t Break Out

It is two minutes to midnight at the time I’m writing this article.

It is also 8 in the evening British Summer Time.

The first statement is from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and refers to how close we are, as a species, to the end of the world. The second is, more prosaically, the actual time.

The Doomsday Clock was invented in 1947 and set to seven minutes to midnight. By 1949, it was three minutes to midnight. In 1953, we got to two minutes to midnight. Since then, it has moved away (as far as seventeen minutes to midnight in 1991) and back in again. With Trump, Putin, Middle East unrest, tensions in Kashmir, coupled with climate change concerns, we’re as close to the end as we ever have been.

When you’re this close to Armageddon, sheer bad luck can take you over the edge. It has nearly done so in the past. Once again, as with so many of my articles, I’ve had difficulty keeping the number down to five. I’ve used my standard method of looking at which event had the greatest chance of changing history — in both probability and impact. 

(I have skipped over some incidents where I felt precautions being taken were likely to stop war breaking out, but we learned from them, for example: don’t leave training tapes in live equipment without telling the next shift unless you want them to stare in horror at screens telling them hundreds of missiles are coming over the pole.)

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Fail Safe

Fail Safe

Fail Safe (1964) accomplishes a lot with very little. Almost the entire movie is shot on just four sets. There is no score. Many of the shots are closeups, which feels appropriate to the crisis atmosphere. The movie succeeds because it has a solid plot and solid acting from such actors as Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau and Frank Overton.

Fail Safe was compared unfavorably to Dr. Strangelove when it first came out (a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis). Both show how a nuclear war might happen accidentally between the Soviet Union and the United States. Strangelove is superior, but, judged on its merits, Fail Safe is a strong entry in the Cold War genre.

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Soviets Considered Creating Artificial Islands for Nuclear Bases

In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union was at a disadvantage in the Cold War. Whereas the United States had missiles in Europe and Turkey that could reach Russia within minutes, North America was far away from Soviet bombs.

Moreover, the Soviet Union had only a few dozen long-range missiles against hundreds on the American side. As a result, the Soviets felt vulnerable to a first strike.

In May 1959, a group of Soviet military engineers proposed to remedy this imbalance by constructing twenty to 25 artificial islands in waters around the United States for nuclear bases.

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Cold War on Steroids

Thought the 1950s couldn’t get any scarier? Think again. Imagine communists ruling all over Europe, the Soviet Union stretching from Finland in the northwest to Port Arthur in the southeast, Britain under the sway of “Big Brother”, America ruled by President-for-Life Douglas MacArthur, and East and West vying for influence in Africa and the Middle East.

This atompunk world is on its way to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and, in Britain, could culminate in the events of Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup (1982), in which civil servants, spies and business leaders conspire to bring down a left-wing government (our review of the 1988 television adaptation here).

Other inspirations include Alan Moore’s and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier (2007) and the Command & Conquer: Red Alert video games.

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The Fourth Protocol

The Fourth Protocol

Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol (1984) was turned into a movie, starring Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan, only three years after it was published. Given that the film largely follows the plot of the book, I’ll cover both in this review.

In the novel, it is the infamous British defector Kim Philby who helps draw up a Soviet plot to detonate a nuclear weapon in Britain and trigger a Labour victory. A left-wing government (Neil Kinnock had yet to defeat far-left Militant entryists at the time) would — the Russians hoped — withdraw the United Kingdom from NATO, kick the Americans out and give up the country’s nuclear deterrent.

To make it seem like an accident, the Soviets plan to smuggle in the nuclear weapon in stages, assemble it in Britain and detonate it near an American military base. This would violate the fictional Fourth Protocol to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which supposedly banned the non-conventional delivery of nuclear weapons.

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World War III Without Missiles

Most World War III scenarios start with a Soviet first strike, but it were the Western Allies who first planned to use nuclear weapons in Europe to offset the Red Army’s numerical superiority.

From Britain’s Operation Unthinkable to America’s Operation Dropshot, these war planes help us imagine a land war in Europe fought only partially with atomic weapons.

When technology progressed in the 1960s — more and bigger atomic bombs, intercontinental ballistic missiles — NATO moved away from integrating nuclear weapons in its war planes. It envisaged either a conventional land war or mutually assured destruction with nothing in between.

The Soviets moved in the opposite direction. Joseph Stalin saw little use for nuclear weapons, but the West’s technological edge compelled his successors to integrate them more seriously in their offensive plans. It wasn’t until the 1980s that both sides abandoned the tactical use of nuclear weapons.

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Topaz

Topaz

Topaz has a lot to work with. Based on the real-life Martel affair, in which a Soviet defection triggered a crisis in American-French relations, it has a good spy story, believable characters and exotic locations.

Alfred Hitchcock does a competent job weaving it all together, but the end result somehow lacks momentum.

The story sounds exciting on paper. A high KGB official defects to the United States and reveals the presence of nuclear missiles on Cuba. The CIA recruit a French secret agent, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), to get proof from a member of the Cuban delegation — who would not cooperate with an American — that is visiting New York for the United Nations.

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How Germany Was Divided: A History of Partition Plans

The way Germany was divided into Western- and Soviet-aligned republics after the Second World War was hardly a straightforward process. The Allies started thinking about whether and how to dismember Germany in the middle of the war and considered several options.

Some, like the Dutch request for territorial compensation, were ignored. Others, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s suggestion of a north-south split, would morph into the east-west divide of the Cold War.

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