The SAC admitted that for ‘four minutes’ on last November 24th, during the height of the Berlin crisis, it seemed as if the United States might be under a nuclear attack. The SAC issued a global alert to all its stations when a key electronic-system failed in the nerve-centre of the North American Defence command, and planes loaded with H-bombs were rushed on to the runways all over the world. General Powers, the SAC commander, said that only the President could initiate a missile count-down, and that he had not alerted the President as he suspected that there had been a signal failure in the attack-warning system.

(From the New York Times, April 20th, 1962)

There are no experts on Accidental War. There are only students who read the newspapers and the Rand reports with more or less vivid imaginations. One school of readers is satisfied, almost to the point of complacency, that the military services have developed ‘fail safe’ techniques that can prevent the unintended discharge of nuclear weapons. The other points to the 50 weapons failures that are known to have occurred so far, though without a nuclear detonation resulting. This school questions whether an enormous arsenal of diverse and sophisticated weapons can be maintained ‘intact’ for 20 years or more in a world that is daily—if not hourly—beset by international tensions.

There are two fundamental issues upon which all opinions concur. First, that the formidable thermonuclear striking-power now available to each ‘camp’ could deliver such terrifying punishment upon the other, if the opponent should have decided to strike first, that neither ‘camp’ will be easily tempted to begin an intentional war. Second, all opinions agree that the potential dangers of an unintended catastrophe are astronomical. Each nuclear Power will soon possess 40,000 missiles, satellites, submarines or bomb-carrying planes; the size of the global nuclear stockpile already stands at 70,000 megatons and is almost doubling annually; the number of Powers equipped with nuclear weapons will grow steadily during the 1960’s and will thus intensify the perils of international conflict. (Expert opinion has been quoted that China will probably test its first atomic weapons between late 1962 and early 1964. C. P. Snow has predicted that 12 countries will be able to manufacture fissionable material by 1965). Worst of all, as the destructive power of the opening salvo, or First Strike, grows apace with the development of 100-or 500-megaton bombs, the increasing speed of the missile-carriers will sharply reduce the warning-period that can elapse between the despatch and impact of a nuclear salvo—whether it was accidentally fired or not.

When von Clausewitz issued his famous dictum, that war could resolve international conflicts through a competitive resort to violence, there were two premises which he kept in mind. First, that wars would be preceded by several weeks of diplomatic manoeuvring and negotiating, during which the protagonist would be able to experiment with bluffing tactics and withdraw its provocative gestures if it judged this to be expedient. Second, that it would take so long to mobilise for an effective campaign that no aggressor could hope to overwhelm or totally destroy its adversary in the opening gambits of the war. These two premises were totally demolished when the manoeuvring period was reduced to a period of less than 15 minutes, and when the concept of ‘overkill’ was embodied in the ruthless calculation of a First Strike. The demolition implied, however, that war was no longer to be viewed as a rational pattern of behaviour, since any one accident of the moment might not only be irrevocable, but also infinitely catastrophic.