The most serious event occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the midst of the conflict, a group of United States Navy Destroyers began dropping practice-depth charges on a Soviet submarine positioned near Cuba in order to force it to the surface. The sub commanders believed WWIII was underway.
According to Soviet military protocol, the commanders had previous permission to launch missiles if all three reached consensus. Two said yes -- one said no. Then "an argument broke out among the three, in which only Vasili Arkhipov was against the launch." Thomas Blanton, a director of the National Security Archive, later remarked, "A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."
In 1983, a computer malfunction at a nuclear warning facility near Moscow falsely indicated a nuclear attack by the United States. The probability indicator was at level 1.
The man in charge, Stanislav Petrov, did not have the ability to launch a retaliatory strike. However, were he to pass on the information to the top command, the Soviet leadership would have only had a few minutes to decide on whether to launch a counter-attack. According to Bruce Blair, a Cold War nuclear strategist, "the top leadership, given only a couple of minutes to decide, told that an attack had been launched, would [have made] a decision to retaliate." Petrov broke military protocol, and waited.
It turned out that the computer malfunction was caused by "a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and satellites."
The third biggest close call occurred in the same year when NATO began a war exercise; the scenario -- an all out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It was codenamed Able Archer.
When the Nazis invaded Russia during WWII, they did so under the guise of a war game. Alarmed by Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" rhetoric, as well as America's deployment of Pershing II strategic missiles in Europe, hard-liners in the Kremlin became convinced that history was about to repeat itself. In the run up to the exercise, the Soviets secretly mobilized all key components of their military forces, including nuclear submarines. One mistake by either side and a holocaust would have resulted.
There are other examples, though not quite as hair-raising. A report by the Nuclear Files Foundation lists over 20 "close calls" during the Cold War.
The greatest danger has never been a rogue commander in the vein of "Jack the Ripper" -- though that threat is real enough -- but accidental nuclear war caused by incompetence and/or technical malfunction.
"So long as nuclear weapons exist," states Noam Chomsky, "the chances for the survival of the human species are quite sleight." Former Defence Sectary Robert McNamara eventually came to the same conclusion. In his promotion of various arms reduction treaties he wrote, "It can be confidently predicted that the combination of human fallibility and nuclear arms will inevitably lead to nuclear destruction."
Unlike most of the public, US military leaders are well aware of the numerous close calls of the Cold War. The same is presumably true of most men and women who (along with military leaders) formulate current US policy. If their goal was the survival, let alone health, of the human race, the United States would have long since abandoned aggressive war. A fraction of the US military budget could eliminate poverty worldwide , and in doing so drain the swamp of resentment and rage that provides the lifeblood of the "terrorist threat."
For critics of American foreign policy, the failure of US leaders to pursue a peaceful path following the collapse of the Soviet Union is often attributed to a uniquely American belligerence or depravity. Yet a cursory glance through the history books shows that the American empire, while exceptional in terms of global reach and technology, is anything but exceptional in terms of base motivation; it is behaving in a remarkably similar fashion to every empire that preceded it. We can only conclude that powerful states -- and the people to tend to wield great power within them -- share peculiar forms of logic that are alien to most of their citizenry.
The Power Principle
The dominant view amongst anthropologists is that we have lived in relatively peaceful, cooperative, egalitarian societies for 99% of our history. In the words of anthropologist Christopher Boehm, "Humans were egalitarian for thousands of generations before hierarchical societies began to appear." Many of the behaviours we now celebrate -- "success" through the hoarding of wealth, for example -- were traditionally considered socially deviant. Ethnographies of extant nomadic foragers reveal that they are "all but obsessively concerned with being free from the authority of others. That is the basic thrust of their political ethos."
The Utku in the Canadian Arctic have an extreme intolerance for "displays of anger, aggression, or dominance" (Boehm). The Pintupi Aborigines insist that "One should assert one's autonomy only in ways that do not threaten the equality and autonomy of others" (Myers). Among the Wape tribe in New Guinea, "A man will not tolerate a situation where a neighbour has more than he has. A man should not possess either goods or power to the disadvantage of others" (Mitchell).