You would have to be my vintage to remember the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

I was still in secondary school but can recall pondering whether it was worth revising for an upcoming exam if we were to be vapourised in an imminent nuclear conflict. Nuclear war was a hot topic at the school debating society. My leftie leanings on disarmament failed to win over many contemporaries. Bloodied but unbowed, I continued to sport Gerald Holtom’s iconic CND lapel badge.

Looking back, it’s remarkable how angst over nuclear weapons has diminished. The small permanent presence at Faslane is a far cry from the heady days of 1961 and 1962. CND marches from London to the Atomic Weapons’ Research Facility at Aldermaston attracted 150,000 people. Today, nuclear weapons and disarmament don’t resonate with the young. They have other concerns, principally the environment and climate change. A 1960s Greta Thunberg would have been leading protests about global nuclear destruction rather than global warming.

The 60th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis has revived interest in the standoff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear conflict. Abyss, by journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings, provides a new and authoritative account of that 1962 white knuckle ride. Fidel Castro, “Che” Guevara and their fellow barbudos were romantic figures to my adolescent, and it must be said, naïve young self. They were revolutionary rock stars. Not surprisingly, US President Kennedy saw things differently; Castro represented an unwelcome Communist intrusion into his backyard. The 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco was a clumsy CIA effort to evict an unwelcome and noisy neighbour.

Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev upped the stakes by locating intermediate-range missiles on Cuba, less than 100 miles from the Florida Keys. As Khrushchev pointed out, NATO and the US had already ringed the Soviet Union with similar devices. They still do. What was sauce for the goose and all that. Perhaps Khrushchev was surprised his actions proved unacceptable to the US. No one else was.

A US naval blockade was imposed to prevent installation of more missiles. Kennedy demanded removal of those already there. Pentagon hawks pressed for an immediate air assault followed by a ground invasion. For 13 days in October 1962, the world held its breath. Hastings suggests local commanders, such as Soviet submarine captains, had astonishing authority to use tactical nuclear weapons. Nuclear-tipped torpedoes, for example, would have devastated US surface vessels, leading to certain escalation.

Good sense, statesmanship and luck, eventually prevailed in Moscow and Washington, if not in Havana. The Russian ships turned back and Soviet missiles were removed from Cuban soil.

What’s the relevance of that now ancient history? Principally, Ukraine represents a similar threat to world peace. While Cuba was a crisis in the US backyard, Ukraine is a similar crisis in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood.

Russia retains the Soviet Union’s sense of victimhood and grievance. President Putin makes no secret of his intention to redress the balance. Threats of battlefield nuclear weapons reflect his miscalculation and increasing desperation. It’s sometimes forgotten “small nukes,” are capable of more devastation than those used against Japan in 1945. Retaliation and escalation would be inevitable.

Worryingly, the global situation is even more unstable than it was in 1962. The Soviet Presidium reined Khrushchev in and made him pay the political price for his folly. Putin, whom Hastings describes as “angry and half-deranged”, appears to experience fewer constraints.

Similar autocratic regimes in China and North Korea, and emergence of the near-fascist right in the US, creates a volatile and unstable mix. There are plenty of historical precedents, such as 1914, in which the main players lost control of events. As Hastings points out, just because potential belligerents don’t want nuclear war, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

The world got lucky in 1962. Sixty years later, we have taken our eye off the nuclear ball. The Ukraine crisis demands management by cool heads and statesmanship that may or may not be present. Kiev is no place for showboating politicians, seeking photo opportunities. Global warming may be the greatest threat to human survival. That can change in a flash. Literally.

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