The Cuban Missile Crisis Ended 50 years ago,
so why should we still hold our breath?

In October of 1962, the world narrowly avoided a nuclear war.

Click to hear Kennedy’s address announcing the naval blockade

In an October 22, 1962 address to the nation, President Kennedy announces the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. For 13 harrowing days, President John F. Kennedy worked to avert war, ultimately finding a solution that led the Soviets to remove the missiles. Fifty years ago, diplomacy prevented catastrophe, but the threat still looms, and it’s more ominous than ever.

Photo: An aerial reconnaissance photo of San Cristobal, Cuba.
Photo: A map showing the distance from Cuba to various North American cities.
Photo: Students practice “duck-and-cover.”

Today, the Nuclear Threat is more complicated and more dangerous.

In 2009 in Prague, President Barack Obama delivers a speech on 21st century nuclear dangers.
Photo: Pakistanis celebrate their country’s nuclear weapons program.
Photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours a uranium enrichment plant.
Video: Former Sen. Sam Nunn talks nuclear dangers on “The Colbert Report.”

The makings of nuclear crises still exist worldwide. Nine countries hold some 20,000 nuclear weapons—enough to destroy the planet hundreds of times over. In many of these places—the Middle East, Northeast Asia and South Asia—bitter regional rivalries pose clear and present nuclear dangers to global security. And with more weapons and materials, there is more risk that terrorists will get a nuclear weapon.


The U.S. and Russia can take immediate steps
to make the world safer.

Across the globe, all countries must do more to create a safer world: nuclear stockpiles must be reduced, nuclear materials must be kept secure from terrorists and regional conflicts must be addressed. The United States and Russia should lead these efforts to prevent a nuclear catastrophe in today’s more dangerous world.

The U.S. and Russia, which possess close to 95% of the world’s nuclear warheads, have a special responsibility, obligation and experience to demonstrate leadership.

George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008

A history of cooperation

  • 1972:
    Richard Nixon & Leonid Brezhnev toast SALT I with first-ever limits on US and Soviet nuclear weapons
  • 1986:
    Ronald Reagan & Mikhail Gorbachev reduced stockpiles, almost agreeing to eliminate nuclear weapons
  • 1991:
    George H. W. Bush announces major unilateral weapons cuts, a step matched by the Soviets days later
  • 2002:
    George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin sign the SORT Treaty, further reducing strategic nuclear weapons
  • 2010:
    Barack Obama & Dmitry Medvedev sign New START, reducing weapons to the lowest level since the 1950s
  • 2011:
    20th anniversary of cooperation under the Nunn-Lugar program, securing nuclear materials from terrorists

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HAIR-TRIGGER ALERT: “Another unnecessary vestige
of Cold War confrontation.”
— George W. Bush

Fifty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and Russia still keep thousands of nuclear weapons ready for immediate launch against each other. That means that leaders in a crisis would have just minutes to check facts and decide whether to use nuclear weapons. Command and control systems are not perfect. People make mistakes. Sabotage can happen. Technology has flaws and systems fail. Today, we live with the dangerous possibility of an accidental, mistaken or unauthorized launch.

The United States and Russia should take their weapons off hair-trigger alert to give leaders more time to gather facts and avoid a deadly miscalculation.

George W. Bush proposes taking weapons off hair-trigger alert, calling for “a new approach to nuclear security that matches a new era.”
System Failure
A 3AM Phone Call
Close Call in 1995
Lost Nukes

“It was luck that prevented nuclear war.”
— Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense During the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved through U.S. and Russian leadership, cooperation, diplomacy and luck. But one small mistake or misjudgment could have led to catastrophe. In today’s increasingly dangerous world, we have more leaders with more nuclear weapons in more unstable regions. Can we really count on them, and on missile warning and control systems working perfectly every time to avoid disaster?

In the documentary film Nuclear Tipping Point, former Secretary of Defense William Perry says, “We did succeed in getting through the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust. That was partly through good management, but mostly through good luck.”


Can We Really Count on Luck?

Learn more about key steps for threat reduction
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