Surveying Cold War Historians on the Likelihood of Nuclear WarHistorians in the News
tags: Cold War, nuclear weapons, nuclear war
World war iii, this time with multiple nuclear-armed states.
That’s the nightmare scenario haunting many people as Russia’s horrific war on Ukraine metastasizes, moving toward NATO’s borders, stoking further Western involvement, sucking in other powers, and spurring nuclear threats from President Vladimir Putin. Discussion of the conflict is rife with comparisons to the Cold War’s darkest days.
We are undoubtedly living through dangerous times, and the risk to Ukrainians is obviously grave. But to better understand the nature of the peril we face, it helps to dig deeper into history. The lesson: For the wider world, in terms of the chances of direct conventional or even nuclear war pitting Russia against the United States and its NATO allies, this is not the most precarious moment since the lowest points of the Cold War—at least not yet.
That was the consensus of several Cold War historians I corresponded with. On balance, they gave me some reason to temper my alarm about the war on Ukraine spiraling into a broader conflagration between nuclear-armed powers. Of the six historians I consulted, four said the present moment was less dangerous than the Cold War’s most hazardous moments; one said it was equally dangerous, just in different ways; and one said it was more dangerous.
The scholars emphasized how close the Soviet Union and United States came to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, as a result of several factors that so far aren’t at play today. Most noted the reassuring ways in which the Biden administration is aiming to avoid an escalatory confrontation with Russia. But they also stressed that escalation stemming from mistakes or miscalculation, which was the most salient source of danger during the Cuban missile crisis, poses a significant risk now as well.
And several cited troubling reasons—including how prolonged the current crisis is likely to be, and modern-day Russia’s weakness compared with the Soviet Union in every domain but nuclear-weapons power—for why the eruption of hostilities in Ukraine may have ushered the world into uncharted territory, limiting the utility of historical analogies and rendering the present moment potentially more precarious.
Certain dynamics that made the Cuban missile crisis so treacherous are, at this point, absent in the conflict over Ukraine. Whereas the 1962 incident was sparked by the U.S. discovery of Soviet efforts to deploy nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to Cuba, today Russia has not taken a comparable step to directly threaten vital American interests, such as relocating “nuclear missiles closer to the U.S. or West,” Mary Elise Sarotte, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told me.
Editor's note: This article includes insights from Mary Elise Sarotte, Graham Allison, Sergey Radchenko, Melvyn Leffler, Michael Dobbs, Vladislav Zubok,
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