In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, US President John F Kennedy (with inputs from defence secretary Robert McNamara and his ‘whiz-kids’) reckoned that the chance of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was “between 1 in 3 and even” – an escalation we now understand would have wiped out much of humanity.
Forty years later, at a conference in Havana which brought together some of the key figures of that crisis (Cuban President Fidel Castro, former US defense secretary Robert McNamara, former Soviet defence minister Dimitri Yazov, former presidential advisors Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen), the Soviets revealed that the odds had been much worse than that.
Sven Creutzmann, a German journalist and documentary photographer who covered the 2002 conference in Havana, recalled that “the most remarkable moment of that crisis was when the Soviets revealed what the US and the world did not know until that very moment: Soviet submarines, that were accompanying the Soviet ships as they were approaching the US embargo line, had been equipped with 15-kiloton nuclear torpedoes.
“But not only that, things were much more dramatic… On October 27, on day 12 of the crisis, the US had started dropping [signaling] depth charges to force the submarines to surface. But there was one submarine that did not surface, nuclear-armed Foxtrot-class submarine B-59.
“The submarine had not been in contact with Moscow for days, batteries had run very low, the air-conditioning was failing, causing extreme heat and high levels of carbon dioxide inside B-59, so there was a lot of tension and as the depth charges exploded over the submarine, its captain was sure that war had broken out and wanted to execute his orders: launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo if the submarine was attacked.
“To authorise the launch, it required the unanimous decision of the three top officers aboard the B-59. The commander was quoted as saying. “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our navy!”, and he wanted to launch the torpedo, as well as a second officer.
“But the third one, Soviet navy officer Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, refused to authorise the captain’s use of nuclear torpedoes. He instead managed to convince the captain to surface the submarine.”
Creutzmann noted these revelations left everybody at the conference ‘stunned’. The participants had little doubt that if the Soviets had launched that torpedo against the US warships (or resorted to a pre-authorised discretionary use of tactical nuclear weapons against US forces invading Cuba), there would have been massive counterstrikes as Daniel Ellsberg made clear in the links below.
The world had no idea how truly close it had come to a nuclear Armageddon six decades ago.
Neither President Kennedy nor Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had wanted war. This is scant comfort for those of us in East and Southeast Asia currently witnessing the increasingly blunt talk of nuclear confrontation, in the wake of revelations and insights of Daniel Ellsberg from his nuclear war planning years in the administrations of Eisenhower and Kennedy and the sidelining of voices of sanity like Ambassador Chas Freeman in the United States.
In 2019, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong renewed a Memorandum of Understanding regarding US use of facilities in Singapore for another 15 years, extending it to 2035.
We presume this entails a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell, which allows for periodic visits of (nuclear-armed?) vessels docking at Changi Naval Base, on top of US and Chinese (nuclear-armed?) warships plying the Strait of Melaka.
This strategic waterway connects the Indian Ocean (plus Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea) with the Western Pacific (including the South China Sea), making it a likely locale for a maritime blockade, and theatre for naval warfare.
An Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine docked at Changi Naval Base, armed with 24×12 independently targetable nuclear warheads (475-kiloton hydrogen bombs), will be a prime target for a nuclear strike if things ever spin out of control.
Even if no nuclear exchange occurs in the Strait of Malacca, a nuclear-powered sub or surface vessel sunk in that heavily used waterway would contaminate those waters and littoral regions of peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia’s Sumatra.
In the 1980s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) vigorously opposed the deployment of Nato’s Pershing II intermediate range ballistic missiles in western Europe, which required only six to 11 minutes after launch to reach their targets in the Soviet Union. Launch sites for these medium-range missiles would likewise be among the targets for medium range SS20 ballistic missiles of the Warsaw Pact nuclear forces.
Perhaps it is time for Asean citizens and governments to go beyond aspirational declarations and emulate New Zealand for an enforceable, binding nuclear weapons-free Asean.
Dr Chan Chee Khoon is coordinator of the Citizens’ Health Initiative