A nuclear nightmare

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Upon learning of the secret Soviet deployment, many of President John F. Kennedy’s advisors recommended that he launch an air attack and invasion of Cuba to destroy the missile sites and overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Fearing the consequences of an attack, Kennedy instead opted for a quarantine of Cuba to allow for a diplomatic solution.

This strategy worked, but just barely. On October 28, 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw his arsenal of missiles and nuclear warheads from the island in exchange for Kennedy’s public commitment not to invade Cuba and his secret concession to withdraw US Jupiter missiles from Turkey at a later date. Had the crisis lasted much longer, Kennedy may have given the order to strike.

What kind of world would we live in had Kennedy attacked Cuba? Unbeknownst to the President, 43,000 Soviet troops and 98 Soviet tactical nuclear weapons were already on the island at the time of the crisis. An attack could have resulted in the use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. invasion force, prompting an escalatory spiral to all out nuclear war.

While Kennedy and Khrushchev’s restraint helped avert disaster, luck played an equally significant role. In one of the most dangerous moments of the crisis, a Soviet captain almost fired his submarine’s nuclear-tipped torpedo at a U.S. warship. However, authorization to fire was denied by one of the officers on board.

It was what Kennedy and Khrushchev did not know and could not control that made the crisis doubly perilous.

Today, there are still approximately 19,000 nuclear weapons across the globe, most much more powerful than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945. Over ninety-five percent of those weapons are in the hands of the United States and Russia.

Supporters of maintaining the nuclear status quo argue that by deterring war, nuclear weapons keep us safe. But the Cuban Missile Crisis provides clear evidence that deterrence is not fool-proof. The use of nuclear weapons is possible even if no one desires such an outcome, especially during a crisis in which military forces are on high alert, accurate information is hard to get, and events on the ground cannot be controlled.

While many Americans believe that the nuclear threat disappeared with the Cold War, the risk that a conflict could lead to the use of nuclear weapons still exists. The threat of nuclear terrorism poses an additional harrowing danger. Nuclear disarmament is daunting and not risk-free itself, but there are steps that can and must be taken now to reduce the chances of a nuclear nightmare.

U.S. leadership is essential to reducing the salience and number of nuclear weapons in international politics. There is a growing consensus among former military leaders and national security experts that the United States can preserve its security with far fewer than its current arsenal of approximately 5,000 weapons. Such a large force does nothing to address 21st century threats such as terrorism and cyberattack and provides Russia with an incentive to maintain a similarly bloated force. Moreover, given the tough economic climate, spending tax dollars on Cold War-era nuclear weapons robs money from more important defense priorities.

So this Halloween, remember that ghosts and goblins aren’t real, but nuclear weapons are. We lucked out in 1962. We may not be so lucky next time.

Reif is the director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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