4 Innocuous Things That Prevented World War III

Thank god for photographers with balls of steel
4 Innocuous Things That Prevented World War III

A sequel no one wanted is bad enough when it’s just a movie. But there is one sequel that the entire world desperately hopes never makes its debut, at the risk of widespread loss of life, limb and normal-looking babies: World War III. The fact that multiple governments on the planet we occupy can’t help but constantly prod at each other leaves us all distantly terrified of what would occur were they to ever knuck where they buck.

Sometimes, tensions boil to the point where the world needs to watch the pot and wonder if humanity is about to disintegrate. There are plenty of times, however, where, for our species-wide sanity, threats are nipped behind closed doors. Everybody stays alive, Walmart’s shelves remain stocked with toilet paper and the world is on its merry way without knowing how close to stepping in a pile of radioactive doo-doo it came. 

Here are four ways past and present World War IIIs has been quietly avoided…

Covert Cuban Photography


On three, show me those warheads!

International negotiations are tough enough with small to medium stakes. When the worst-case outcome is that the earth looks like the end of a spent matchstick, much more so. Knowing that, JFK had to navigate talks with the Soviets while also not knowing exactly what they were up to, and a half-day delay in messages between the two powers didn’t help. What he turned to for the most up-to-date info he could muster were photos taken of Cuba by spy planes. They allowed him to track whether any nuclear missiles were actually primed and ready, informing every step of his talks with Nikita Khrushchev. 

A Mission Kept Mum for 50 Years

Public Domain

Its hard enough to keep a secret when its not one that makes you look awesome.

Imagine being in a thrilling aerial dogfight, the type of story that could bring a bustling bar to respectful silence, and then being told by the U.S. government that you’re never allowed to tell anyone about it. That’s the type of tale that Navy pilot Royce Williams had to sit on for 50 years lest he kick off another world war. With that damaging and daring of a yarn in the back of his brain, I wouldn’t be surprised if the government didn’t have some guy tailing him to make sure he never had more than three or four Budweisers at a BBQ.

The engagement in question happened in 1952 during the Korean War, a time when a couple countries were quite cross at each other. While flying a non-combat mission, he ran into Soviet jets, four of which proceeded to shoot at him. In what has to be a much easier instruction to give far away from flying bullets, he was told not to reciprocate. Somewhat understandably, Williams called an audible on the plan of “probably die,” and despite not piloting an aircraft equipped for such dogfights, he ended up downing all four Soviet jets

A victory despite overwhelming odds is usually cause for a medal, but what Williams got instead was a personal instruction from President Dwight D. Eisenhower that amounted to “you tell fucking no one about this.” He feared, likely correctly, that “hey, we shot down four of your jets” might raise the general temperature between the U.S. and the Soviets in what was already a plenty tense conflict. The mission wouldn’t be declassified for a half-century, until 2005, when Williams could finally say, “Hey, wanna hear something cool?”

A Misunderstood Research Rocket


These almost destroyed the world, and not in the way ancient civilizations thought they might.

Nobody wants to be involved in a situation that could, in the sourest circumstances, kick off World War Numero Tres. Though if your chosen occupation is the military or government, it is part of your job description. By design, as well, you kinda are the person who is designated to deal with that nightmare. You get to wear cool epaulets and give medals to your grandkids and, in exchange, you might at some point have to make an important work decision that makes losing a million-dollar account feel like a momentary typo. So I can’t imagine the type of apology email that would have to be typed up by the Norwegian scientists who almost started World War III in the name of research. 

To their credit, they had informed relevant governments that they were launching a sounding rocket (which is meant to take measurements, not go up a celestial urethra, in case your mind has been similarly rotted by the internet) to study aurora borealis. Regardless, some Russian radar analysts hadn’t gotten the memo, and when they spotted the rocket, they informed Moscow and Boris Yeltsin that a nuclear strike might be imminent, and it was deemed credible enough that they primed Yelstin’s nuclear football. Yeltsin, thankfully, decided not to push the button. Despite being maybe the dumbest whoopsie on this list, it’s also the only time a Soviet or Russian leader has activated their nuclear suitcase, meaning we were truly moments away from Pooftown.

Mutually Assured Destruction


Ten paces, turn around and blow up Earth.

To be honest, though, stripping away all the “fun” details from the above incidents, the real thing keeping us all away from World War III is one thing: Our bombs are just too fucking big now. When you hear the term “mutually assured destruction,” it’s most often in relation to the Cold War, but the reality is, it’s basically a background hum in literally any international disagreement in the modern age. Military negotiations between world superpowers are, at this point, basically a room full of guys holding a grenade with the pin pulled out. 

So anyways, what’s new on Netflix this month?

Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.

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