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6 August 2012

In October, it will be fifty years since the Cuban Missile Crisis, known as the ‘October Crisis’ in Cuba, and the ‘Caribbean Crisis’ in Russia. During those days in 1962, the United States and Soviet Union came closer to conflict than at any other time. It has been described as the worst week of the Cold War.

That the conflict did not erupt probably has quite a lot to do with the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The suffering of those cities and their hibakusha was indelibly etched on the consciousness of the post-war generation. One prominent member of that generation, Robert McNamara, was US Defence Secretary from 1961 to 1968. Decades later, in 2005, he observed that:

Much of the current US nuclear policy has been in place since before I was secretary of defence, and it has only grown more dangerous and diplomatically destructive in the intervening years.

Mr McNamara then assessed the average modern US warhead as having a destructive power 20 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. He remarked that ‘we are at a critical moment in human history – perhaps not as dramatic as that of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but a moment no less crucial.’ He reminded us that neither the American people, nor those of other nations, have debated the merits of alternative, long-range nuclear weapons policies for their countries or the world:

They have not examined the military utility of the weapons; the risk of inadvertent or accidental use; the moral and legal considerations relating to the use or threat of use of the weapons; or the impact of current policies on proliferation. Such debates are long overdue. If they are held, I believe they will conclude, as have I and an increasing number of senior military leaders, politicians, and civilian security experts: we must move promptly towards the elimination – or near elimination – of all nuclear weapons. For many, there is a strong temptation to cling to the strategies of the past 40 years. But to do so would be a serious mistake leading to unacceptable risks for all nations.’

Bertrand Russell himself remarked that the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis, more than any previous crisis, made the ordinary citizen suddenly aware of the ever-present danger of nuclear annihilation’. It was because of the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the world had witnessed in 1945, that ordinary citizens had some understanding of the danger of such annihilation. That is why it is right to mark these tragic anniversaries, and to remind the world that nuclear weapons continue to threaten us all until they are abolished.

Tony Simpson Ken Fleet
Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation  

NB To mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russell Foundation are republishing Bertrand Russell’s Unarmed Victory, which recounts his part in those tumultuous events. Details online (  


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