Cuban Missiles: A Warning on The Uncertainty of War

AuthorPeter Charleton
PositionBA (Mod)(Dubl), judge of the Supreme Court, adjunct professor of criminal law and criminology in the National University of Ireland, Galway, former barrister and lecturer in criminal law in Trinity College Dublin
[2022] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 6(2)
Author: Peter Charleton, BA (Mod)(Dubl), judge of the Supreme Court, adjunct professor of criminal law
and criminology in the National University of Ireland, Galway, former barrister and lecturer in criminal law
in Trinity College Dublin.
Abstract: With the arrival of Spring 2022, war in Europe has again erupted, millions have been displaced,
thousands have perished and the President of the United States expresses the worry that, with a false move,
the use of nuclear weapons may be engaged to usher in World War III; fears that tortured President Kennedy
in the Fall of 1962. Some say that history does not illuminate or, at best, the light cast is like that reflected
by the ocean from the stern lantern of a moving ship. But, if we are to know the dangers attending the present,
must we not learn from dangers past and draw some solace from how the horrors then in prospect passed?
With war, as with crime, the stage is set for serial violations of human rights, but, with war, it is an industry;
one apparently justifiable since even at common law to kill in the heat of battle is lawful. And the war,
pregnant with dangers, continues with no seeming end.
Hence, this essay concentrates on the objective truth that can be gleaned from situations of conflict only after
the passage of decades; on how close the world previously came to catastrophe; and takes as its theme the
terrible duality in human nature whereby without decency unravelling the senseless and prevailing over deceitful
and egotistical urges, the hands that write these words and the eyes that read them might have passed into
oblivion. This concerns history. But historical essays perhaps fit within a law journal because law is there to
protect against crisis; but in matters of geo-political advancement international regulation may quickly be side-
lined as may its prime guardian institutions, the United Nations and World Court. Besides that, law is a
study of human behaviour and its amelioration: hence, this discussion involves the law’s subjects as much as
the judgment of any court.
An ongoing threat
Since the invention and first use of nuclear weapons in 1945, humanity has lived under
multiplying swords of Damocles suspended over the continuation of civilization by, first of
all, one, then two and now multiple, powers disposing this apocalyptic threat.
Any nation
may seek, according to the principle enunciated by von Clausewitz, to pursue politics through
war. Hence, in Ukraine in 2022, political demands are now being furthered through
horrendous destruction. Violently opposite views of the right and wrong of how two nations
should conduct themselves are to be settled through the menace of humanity’s destructive
instinct. Having started down that path, the aggressor might heed the German philosopher’s
warning as to the incalculable influences of emotion, chance and disappointed pride which
quickly make the calculation of outcome obsolete.
Where the current European conflict will
terminate has morphed from what was once a matter of strategy by the initiators into
speculation as to the outcome. Once started, as Tolstoy warned, the course of war becomes
uncertain where conventional weapons are used,
but where a nuclear arsenal is brought into
play threatens outcomes that will destroy not only the combatants and their innocent
Andrew Roth and others, ‘Putin signals escalation as he puts Russia’s nuclear force on high alert’, The
Guardian (28 February 2022).
See generally, Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (1832), and Carl von Clausewitz, On War (OUP 2008).
Tolstoy’s example was of Prince Andrei seizing the standard at the battle of Austerlitz and charging forward;
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1867), Part III, xvi.
[2022] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 6(2)
populations but, potentially, civilization. Even for a small neutral country, like Ireland, no
declaration of non-combatant status can insulate against the generational catastrophe that a
clash of nuclear arms must entail.
It is the purpose of this article to consider in the light of the principle of the uncertainty of
war how events of sixty years ago in Cuba could have proven how the varying factors of
personality, morality, prestige and conflict of ideology could then have destroyed much of
the world and, it follows, given the wrong conditions, how that threat arising from the human
personality continues.
More obviously than in the more occluded belief-systems of our 21st century when, post-
World War II, Soviet Russia and the United States of America both espoused and pursued
the evangelisation of opposing ideologies, the entire world lived in fear. That threat of nuclear
war loomed so large in 1962 that Ireland began to make preparations for potential fallout,
taking what limited steps were available to the State to minimise panic among the
Every house was issued with a booklet telling the population what to do in the
event of war, including pre-storing water by filling up the bathtub, stockpiling canned foods
and taking the hinges off doors to use as makeshift shelters.
Of course, these measures were
largely symbolic, though a token of the level of fear. Personal recollection is of both
fascination at the weird steps expected of every family and a realisation of the improbability
of survival.
With Soviet missiles installed by stealth in Cuba in mid-1962,
fear had crystallised into
imminent danger for Americans. Those rockets were a mere 90 kilometres from the US
with major cities now well within reach of the USSR’s medium-range ballistic
This was not mere emotion, as in Ireland’s case, but survival. The United States
had approximately 75 nuclear-capable B-52s in the air during the brief period during which
a DefCon 2 security stance was established by President John FitzGerald Kennedy.
world then did, in fact, come close to nuclear warfare. In the crisis there were multiple
instances that, given other circumstances, or other leaders, or other perhaps chance factors,
could have been escalated into all-out atomic warfare between the Soviet Union and the
United States. These small factors a decision to postpone responding with military
retribution to a downed US pilot, the coincidental knowledge of Cyrillic Morse code by an
educated US naval officer, fighter jets running out of fuel all contributed to the eventual
de-escalation of the conflict: but these starkly demonstrate the precarious nature of what was
Public fear of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology has always been extremely high, particularly in relation
to fear of fallout; Toni Perrine ‘The Godzilla Factor: Nuclear Testing and Fear of Fallout’ (1997) 16(1) Grand
Valley Review 19.
The Civil Defence Services first issued a booklet to its own members in March 1962, entitled Methods of
Protection, and then a shortened version of it was sent to every household in Ireland the next year after the
crisis of October 1962.
There were 158 Soviet nuclear warheads in place in Cuba by the time the United States imposed the military
blockade on 24 October 1962. See Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, ‘The Cuban Missile Crisis: a Nuclear
Order of Battle, October and November 1962’ (2012) 68(6) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 85.
Thomas C Reeves, A Question of Character (London: Arrow 1991) 253.
Soviet MRBMs transported to Cuba were primarily R-14s a nd R-12s, the latter of which had an operational
range of 2,080 kilometres, with the former capable of striking targets up to 3,700 kilometres away. See Serhii
Plohky, Nuclear Folly (London 2021) 75.
Stephanie Ri tter, ‘SAC During the 13 Days of the Cuban Missile Crisis’ (Air Force Global Strike Co mmand
AFSTRAT-AIR 19 October 2012).

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