Most of us have lived in fear of World War III for most of our lives. After all, we saw how much damage the Axis did during World War II. How much worse would a global conflict be with the weapons and technology of this age?
This was a threat keenly understood by Albert Einstein. One quote often attributed to the great thinker is that “World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones.” The message is simple: another global conflict could very well set us back to the Stone Age.
What could be more frightening than that cheerful thought? Simple: the fact that we’ve already come close to another world war on several different occasions!
Don’t believe it? Keep reading to learn more about the times that World War III almost happened!
The Cuban Missile Crisis
For many years, America was locked into a Cold War with the Soviet Union. As you might imagine, several of our close calls with World War III happened during this time. And the most infamous of these occasions was the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In October of 1962, President John F. Kennedy was locked into a 13-day standoff with Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev. Thanks to Fidel Castro, the Soviet Union had access to missiles in Cuba. From there, they could easily strike American targets and launch America into a new global conflict.
That conflict seemed inevitable when the president blockaded Cuba and made it clear he was ready to launch an invasion to stop those missiles. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Russia removed the missiles from Cuba even as America removed missiles from Turkey. Still, it’s fair to say that in this instant, we were a heartbeat away from World War III.
Vietnam was nearly much worse
At this point, it’s safe to say that the conflict in Vietnam is one of the most embarrassing things to happen to the United States. That conflict almost singlehandedly undermined confidence in America as both a world power and a military force. However, Vietnam was very nearly worse than anyone could imagine!
History News Network reports that Lyndon Johnson’s generals wanted him to make even bigger forays into Vietnam after the conflict started. This caused LBJ to cuss those generals out because he feared (perhaps rightly so) that American intervention on such a level might lead to nuclear war with either Russia or China.
Years later, LBJ’s stance was vindicated when Khrushchev ally Anastas Mikoyan’s uncensored memoirs were published in Russia. Those memoirs revealed that during Vietnam, Soviet Minister of Defense General Rodion Malinovskii worried America might invade Cuba next and that Russia needed to be ready to attack West Berlin in retaliation!
A training exercise almost went horrifically wrong
The idea that the American military would disguise serious operations or serious screw-ups as a “military exercise” has become something of a pop culture joke. In fact, Tony Stark references this practice in the first Iron Man movie. Over two decades before the MCU, though, a 1983 training exercise nearly started a World War.
According to the National Security Archive, the operation in question was ABLE ARCHER. It was a joint US/NATO war game where one of the major goals was testing communication between North America and Europe in the event of (you guessed it) World War III.
To play it safe, every encoded message began with the word “exercise,” and everyone involved thought the Russians would decode and understand that word. However, Russia began reacting as if NATO was getting ready to launch a nuclear strike!
Fortunately for everyone, Russia seemingly realized what was going on and stopped preparing to strike in retaliation. Still, this brush with World War III was enough to get Reagan to reach out to the Kremlin, despite infamously calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” the year before.
Risks with Syria
If there is one thing Donald Trump is known for, it is the blistering trash talk of his political rivals. So it is no surprise that during the lead-up to the 2016 election that he eventually won, CNN reports that Trump said, “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”
He was referring to Clinton’s suggestion of establishing no-fly zones to help Syrian citizens affected by that country’s civil war. Proving that time is a flat circle, Trump suggested that doing this might antagonize Russia, which he reminded everyone was “a nuclear country.”
Only time will tell if this was a close brush with global conflict or political bluster at the end of a long, bitter campaign.
The persistent threat of North Korea
One of Donald Trump’s many controversies as president is how friendly he acted toward North Korea. Many criticized Trump for being so friendly with Kim Jung-Un, especially given North Korea’s well-documented history of human rights violations. To hear Trump talk, though, his friendliness was a way of saving the world!
Trump was the first sitting United States president to visit North Korea. During a NATO summit, he spoke disparagingly about former president Obama’s hardline stance against North Korea. As reported by NewsWeek, Trump said that if the country had listened to Obama’s advice “we’d be in World War 3 right now.”
Once again, it’s impossible to test the veracity of Trump’s words. Still, making political inroads against a dangerous rival that could always complete the development of its nuclear program may very well have helped us achieve a temporary peace.
Could the Russian invasion of Ukraine lead to WWIII?
Most of these brushes with World War III occurred many years ago, and we can take solace from the fact that a greater conflict was averted. But what if we were in the midst of a global conflict right now and didn’t even know it?
One week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Independent interviewed Ukraine’s former prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, and he had very dire words of warning. According to him, World War III had “already started” thanks to the invasion. Furthermore, he claimed that Ukraine represented Europe’s “only defense” against potential Russian invasion.
Famously, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not gone as well as Putin had planned. But considering the amount of money and weapons America is sending to Ukraine, many already see this as a proxy war where America is fighting Russia via a third party. And whether Russia triumphs in its invasion or continues to lose, Putin’s reaction may be enough to put the entire world in danger.