Top 10 Times The World Was On The Brink Of War

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Top 10 Times The World Was On The Brink Of War

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Thankfully for humanity, level heads prevailed in these dangerous situations. For this list, we'll be looking at various times in which World War III, or at least a major international skirmish, nearly broke out. Our countdown includes The Incident at Pristina Airport, The Russian Invasion of Ukraine, The Cuban Missile Crisis, and more!
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Top 10 Times the World Was on the Brink of War


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 times the world was on the brink of war.

For this list, we’ll be looking at various times in which World War III, or at least a major international skirmish, nearly broke out.

Which of these stories scares you the most? Let us know in the comments below!

#10: The Incident at Pristina Airport

On June 11, 1999, the Kosovo War came to an end. Just one day after its conclusion, hundreds of Russian troops occupied Kosovo’s Pristina International Airport. NATO troops were scheduled to arrive via the airport that same day. An armed stand-off resulted, and General Wesley Clark ordered that the airport be taken by force. However, this would obviously antagonize the Russian occupiers and a peace agreement would be impossible to achieve. Both General Mike Jackson and Captain James Blunt refused to follow Clark’s order, with Jackson famously saying, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” And yes, that is the James Blunt who helped save us all from World War III. You’re beautiful, James Blunt.


#9: Able Archer 83

Back in the 1980s, NATO forces practiced Exercise Able Archer. This was a simulated conflict that trained troops in the event of a nuclear attack. 1983’s exercise began like any other - with a few caveats. This year introduced a heightened degree of reality and the involvement of various heads of government. This caused great anxiety within the Soviet Union. They started to believe that the scheduled simulation was actually a ruse meant to mask a real nuclear attack. It didn’t help that tensions between them and the U.S. were at an all-time high. The Soviet Union retaliated by preparing their own nuclear arsenal. Luckily, tensions immediately dissipated when the simulation concluded and the Soviet Union realized that, yes, it was indeed just a simulation. Whew.

#8: Petrov Saves the World

1983 was…a tough year. Just a few months before Able Archer, Soviet Air Defense Forces officer Stanislav Petrov singlehandedly saved the world. On September 26, the Soviet Union’s early-warning radar detected missiles being fired from the United States. They were headed their way, and it was only a matter of minutes before they hit. Petrov had a choice - either wait and see what happens, or notify his superiors and launch a counterattack. He decided to wait, which is probably the greatest and most consequential gamble of the 20th century. With his heart likely pounding in his chest, Petrov eventually realized that nothing happened and that the computer was simply malfunctioning. If he had retaliated, the world would have been plunged into nuclear war.


#7: The Assassination of Qasem Soleimani

2020 was a legendarily horrible year, and it all started with a potential for World War III. On January 3, Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was assassinated by the United States Air Force via drone strike. International response to the attack was mixed. Iran called it an act of terrorism, and some military experts called its legality into question. Naturally, tensions between the United States and Iran quickly escalated, with Iran promising retaliatory attacks. And for the first time in decades, Iran launched attacks against American forces based in Iraq. But the biggest fallout came via Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was shot down by Iranian forces after being mistaken for a cruise missile.


#6: The NORAD Computer Error

Computers really are out to get us all. This is essentially the story of Stanislav Petrov, only in reverse. History does indeed repeat itself. In the early morning hours of November 9, 1979, computers at NORAD HQ displayed everyone’s worst nightmare - nuclear missiles were coming in hot from the Soviet Union. Everyone started panicking, and plans for a counterattack were immediately launched. But once again, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski decided to sit and wait. And once again, nothing happened. An investigation was launched, and they discovered that a technician had accidentally started a practice simulation. Just imagine the heat that that guy received…


#5: The Norwegian Rocket Incident

This little incident contained many firsts. For one thing, it was the first nuclear close call to have occurred after the conclusion of the Cold War, taking place in January of 1995. Secondly, it was the first and so far only time that the Russian nuclear briefcase Cheget has been activated. On January 25, a team of scientists launched a research rocket from Norway that was meant to study the aurora borealis. While they notified Russia of the launch, technicians did not receive the report and believed that it was a nuclear attack. Russian President Boris Yeltsin opened the briefcase and considered retaliation. Luckily, further observation proved that it was indeed just a research rocket, and plans for a nuclear attack were hastily dropped.

#4: The Berlin Crisis of 1961

Imagine large numbers of tanks pointing at each other in the middle of Berlin for five straight months and you’re picturing the Berlin Crisis. Post World War II Germany was still being figured out, and beginning in the summer of 1961, Soviet forces ordered that all Western troops vacate the city. Western forces said “nah,” and a five month stand-off with tanks began. This occurred largely at Checkpoint Charlie, the most popular crossing point demarcating East and West Berlin. The crisis eventually reached a peaceful conclusion with the construction of the Berlin Wall. Said wall proceeded to literally and metaphorically split Berlin for nearly three decades.

#3: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine

After many years of increasing escalation, Vladimir Putin ordered the complete invasion of neighboring Ukraine. It began on February 24, 2022 and was quickly deemed Europe’s most significant military conflict since World War II. International reaction was swift, complete with widespread sanctions and aid to Ukraine. Putin also put his nuclear forces on high alert, prompting international fears of a potential nuclear war. While these fears were quickly quelled, various experts have nevertheless argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could eventually kick start World War III. Or, worse yet, that the invasion signaled the beginning of World War III.

#2: The Korean War

By 1950, the world was only five years separated from the greatest conflict in human history. Everyone was tired and burnt out, and large swaths of Europe and Asia were nothing but rubble. Enter the Korean War and newfound fears of World War III. And they thought the 20 year gap between the first two was bad. The Korean Peninsula was fought over by two factions - communist nations composed of the USSR, China, and North Korea, and capitalist nations composed of the UN and South Korea. Many experts feared that this conflict would eventually spill out of the east and envelop the globe, starting a new world war just five years after the conclusion of the last. Luckily, no such outbreak occurred.

#1: The Cuban Missile Crisis

October 1962 was a month of great tension. Even to this day, the Cuban Missile Crisis is regarded as the closest the world has come to complete nuclear destruction. It started in mid October, with America and the Soviet Union pointing nukes at each other. America deployed missiles in Italy and Turkey, so the Soviets deployed their secret missiles in Cuba. A tense nuclear standoff occurred, and all-out war was avoided by numerous key people. Soviet Navy officer Vasily Arkhipov prevented a submarine from launching a nuclear missile, and President John F. Kennedy ignored advice to attack Cuba. The crisis was peacefully concluded, but if either of these two men took a different approach…well, we don’t want to think about the repercussions.
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