The dangers of nuclear proliferation

In 1983, Soviet satellites had detected a barrage of American missiles coming their way. The man in charge at the time was named Stanislav Petrov. Petrov had orders; if the radars detect an American attack, call for immediate nuclear retaliation. Fortunately, Petrov decided to disobey his instructions. He decided that it was too risky to call for a retaliatory strike until he could confidently confirm the American attack. Petrov reasoned that it was unlikely that America would start world war 3 with a small surprise attack, so that there could be some sort of error. What Petrov did not know at the time was that the KGB did believe at the time the Americans were planning on launching a small surprise attack against them. Had this been passed on to Petrov, he probably would not have waited the extra 10 minutes to see if the attack were real before he called for retaliation (giving the Soviets just enough time to respond). With only moments before Petrov had to call for a response, the missiles disappeared from the radar. Turns out the Soviet satellite had a huge design flaw and there were never any missiles, but merely just high altitude clouds.

On October 16th, 1962, the Americans received satellite footage that Cuba was secretly building launching pads for Soviet missiles that if equipped with nuclear payloads would  be able to crush the entire eastern United States, potentially killing 90 million Americans. This was too much of a risk for the Americans to handle and they decided that these sites must be destroyed before they were loaded with nuclear weapons. John F. Kennedy asked his team to prepare a plan to destroy the missiles, and shortly thereafter, a plan was put in place to launch 1080 sorties against Cuba, completely annihilating everything in the vicinity. On Monday, October 29th, the attacks were to start, following an invasion of Cuba a week later.

On Saturday the 27th, two days before the planned attack, an American plane was shot down over Cuba and as things seemed more and more out of control and closer to the brink of war, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Llewellyn Thompson, one of the lowest possible ranked members of EXCOMM convinced president Kennedy to wait out the attack, and surprisingly he did. What the Americans didn’t know at the time was that the Cuban missiles were already loaded with nuclear weapons; 162 of them in total. Years later Fidel Castro was asked what would have happened if the Americans launched an attack and this was his response: “Now, we started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt. We were certain of that … we would be forced to pay the price, that we would disappear…. Would I have been ready to use nuclear weapons? Yes, I would have agreed to the use of nuclear weapons.…”.

At the very same time this was all going on, there was a Soviet submarine loaded with nuclear weapons that had been submerged underground without radio contact for a few days. They were the target of American shots (which were actually supposed to be warning shots asking the ship to identify itself). Because they could not radio back to Moscow due to the depth of their submersion, the captain of the ship believing that world war 3 must have already started decided to launch the subs nuclear payload at America as instructed. Outnumbered 2-1, the 2nd in command, Vasili Arkhipov, would not let the launch proceed (all three of them needed to authorize it) and made them rise to service and radio back to Moscow.

In 1961, an American airplane accidentally dropped two nuclear weapons (with a payload of more than 250 times greater than Hiroshima’s bomb) into North Carolina.  On the way to the ground, 3/4 failsafe’s miraculously launched into place, putting one of the bombs on the verge of explosion. The only thing that prevented it from going off was the physical on/off switch that had not been impacted in the collision with the ground.

There are many stories like this. With a sample size of one, anything can happen, but the fact that a nuclear holocaust did not occur during the Cold War is simply a fluke. The modern world as we know it, statistically should have ceased to exist. Many people take the wrong message from the Cold War. They believe that nuclear weapons are what allowed the world to experience peace and are the main instrument that protected us. By extension, these people do not fear nuclear proliferation.

For how destructive nuclear weapons are, the world is too impossible to predict and there is too much room for mistakes to happen. Nobody should ever under estimate the power of personal pride or overestimate the levels of human incompetence. Humans must inherently trust others. This is why the proliferation of nuclear weapons absolutely terrifies me.

Anyone who drives a car trusts the fact that the person in the oncoming lane will not decide to drive into their lane and kill them both. However at the same time, suicide bombers exist; people who gladly kill themselves with the hope of harming others. We continue to drive because of the value that driving a car brings us supplemented with the unlikelihood and irrationality of someone wanted to kill us (at the expense of killing themselves). Should we continue to act with complete disregard for our safety when there remains a possibility of some shmuck in North Korea or mistake made by one person in Pakistan that could end our world? If we had to give up something as essential as driving cars, then maybe not; but to ensure that a third world despot does not destroy the world, we would have to give up close to nothing; we just need to be swift in taking action.

America, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel all have nuclear weapons. Belgium, Germany, Italy, Holland and Turkey all possess nuclear weapons, Canada, Greece, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Cuba used to as well. Syria and Iraq were both bombed to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons. South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons, Iran can breakout to have them at any point, and any western nation could build their own in less than a year.

The biggest mistake in all of this was allowing India to develop nuclear weapons. I feel strongly enough to state that this was probably one of the biggest mistakes in modern history. India could have easily been prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. Once India acquired nuclear weapons, it became inevitable and unpreventable for Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons. I do not understand how anyone could not think this were the case after hearing their foreign minister publically make the statement in 1965 “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass and leaves for a thousand years, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own. The Christians have the bomb, the Jews have the bomb and now the Hindus have the bomb. Why not the Muslims too have the bomb?” Once this happened, it became easy for states such as North Korea and Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and to put it simply, lubricated the slide of nuclear proliferation to new extremes.

India did not benefit from acquiring nuclear weapons and in fact, arguably suffered a great deal from it. India felt it was necessary to ensure protection from China, but China was never a true threat to them (or going to attack them with nukes). Sure, India felt safer against an attack from Pakistan, but that was obviously going to be extremely limited (it ended in less than 30 years when Pakistan developed their own nuclear weapons) and is now in a much worse position. Despite having a far stronger army, India can never retaliate against Pakistan without the fear of being destroyed while Pakistan is free to finance as much terrorism against India as they want.

After America launched the first atom bomb, there was never any hope of stopping the original powers from acquiring nuclear weapons; France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, these were all simply facts of life. Israel likely could not have been prevented as well. If nuclear weapons were limited to just this group, everything would likely be manageable. The reason for this is that none of these states are truly rogue international actors and none of them had a single state rogue international state that was its sole enemy. Sure, lots of rogue states are self declared immortal enemies of Israel seeking its destruction, but because of how many they are in number, there is no pressure on one singular state to acquire nuclear weapons to counter its balance.

Once again, the problem is not India. The problem is that India acquiring nuclear weapons necessitated that Pakistan would as well and that came with consequences the world was not ready to deal with. It is not even the threat that Pakistan would act rogue that scares the world so much, it is not even the fear that Pakistan would give nukes to terrorists, it is not even the fear that Pakistan through its own incompetence would have its nukes stolen; although all of these things are giant fears, it is that Pakistan is the sole reason why North Korea and Iran can have bombs and any other nation can have one as well.

Historically, nuclear weapons were hard to acquire but manageable through the duplicity of civilian nuclear reactors and the greed of western research companies who wished to profit by not asking questions when selling nuclear related products or designs. This is exactly how Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons, but the process became much easier after them. All that became needed was to pay Pakistan and they were eager to pass on the knowledge, designs and products. This offer extended to all nations and was actually quite cheap; Libya had to only pay $100 million for an all-in-one nuke kit.

The world failed by not preventing India from acquiring nuclear weapons. The world has one last chance before nuclear proliferation spirals out of control and becomes a fact of life. If Iran is not stopped from its goal of obtaining these destructive weapons, the world will face something far worse than Iran simply having nuclear weapons. Whether it takes 10, 20 or 30 years, states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia will ensure that they have nuclear weapons of their own. With the knowledge and technology being so readily available in the third world, it is inevitable that the weapons would not stop there, but would spread even further. Maybe its Venezuela, maybe its Nigeria, maybe its not even a state but an organization such as Al Qaeda; when nuclear weapons technology and information becomes so widespread and affordable, it is inevitable it will find itself in more destructive hands.

The world is already in a bad place with Pakistan and North Korea having nuclear weapons, but the global impact is largely mitigated through their focus towards India, South Korea and Japan. The world can send a strong message by stopping Iran that no more states, under any circumstances can acquire nuclear weapons. However, if the world fails in this, nuclear weapons will proliferate to new bounds providing dangerous consequences for everyone.

About the Author
Daniel lived in Israel where he pursued his graduate studies focussing on Israeli policy. Daniel is now back in his home country of Canada studying law. Come check me out at