Very close. Very close indeed.
Soviet submarine commanders were highly disciplined and unlikely to use nuclear weapons by design, but the unstable conditions on board raised the spectre of an accident. Orlov himself believes that the major danger was not from the unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon but from an accident caused by the interaction of men and machines under the most trying of circumstances. Captain Joseph Bouchard, the author of a major study on Naval operations during the missile crisis, supports this point when he suggests that the "biggest danger" was not from "deliberate acts" but from accidents, such as an accidental torpedo launch.The weapons to be used in the attack? Nuclear-tipped torpedos to be fired into the harbour. 15kt yield each, about the same as the weapon used in Nagasaki.
Possibly even more dangerous was an incident on submarine B-59 recalled by Vadim Orlov, who served as a communications intelligence officer. In an account published by Mozgovoi (see document 16), Orlov recounted the tense and stressful situation on 27 October when U.S. destroyers lobbed PDCs (practice depth charges - they make a loud noise, but that's all) at B-59. According to Orlov, a "totally exhausted" Captain Valentin Savitsky, unable to establish communications with Moscow, "became furious" and ordered the nuclear torpedo to be assembled for battle readiness. Savitsky roared "We're going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all." Deputy brigade commander Second Captain Vasili Archipov calmed Savitsky down and they made the decision to surface the submarine.
While the four Soviet Foxtrot submarines did not have combat orders, the Soviet Navy sent two submarines, B-75 and B-88, to the Caribbean and the Pacific respectively, with specific combat orders. B-75, a "Zulu" class diesel submarine, commanded by Captain Nikolai Natnenkov, carried two nuclear torpedoes. It left Russian waters at the end of September with instructions to defend Soviet transport ships en route to Cuba with any weapons if the ships came under attack.
Another submarine, B-88, left a base at Kamchatka peninsula, on 28 October, with orders to sail to Pearl Harbor and attack the base if the crisis over Cuba escalated into U.S.-Soviet war. Commanded by Captain Konstatine Kireev, B-88 arrived near Pearl Harbor on 10 November and patrolled the area until 14 November when it received orders to return to base, orders that were rescinded that same day, a sign that Moscow believed that the crisis was not over. B-88 did not return to Kamchatka under the very end of December.
If that had happened... if nuclear torpedos would have been used by the Russians - and what the USA didn't know was that nuclear-tipped anti-ship missiles were operational in Cuba, and would have been used in such a case... then if Pearl Harbor got nuked as well....
Russki would be a dead language. The US had bombs big enough to not just vapourise a city, but make vast areas lethally radioactive. They had delivery systems too, while the USSR had very few rockets, and even fewer bombers capable of attacking the USA. The US SIOP - Single Intergrated Operational Plan - involved everything from unreliable missiles, through to inaccurate cruise missiles with miss distances in miles (but with a 5 Megaton warhead, that didn't matter), down to propellor-driven Skyraider aircraft launched from carriers to attack port cities in semi-suicide attacks "lobbing" small nukes nearly vertically in a half-loop, and hoping to escape before what went up came down. And lots and lots of B-52s, each with two 5-megaton warheads.
The quote from Dr Strangelove is accurate regarding US likely losses:
President Merkin Muffley: You're talking about mass murder, General, not war!
General "Buck" Turgidson: Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.
Sounds about right.
The Cold War sucked. I was 4 years old at the time, and with the high-priority targets we knew about (a nuclear weapon manufacturing & storage facility, a regional centre of government, and a US bomber base) all within 10 km... the fireballs would have overlapped where I lived. The USSR had plenty of weapons capable of hitting the UK, just not many that could reach the US.
We didn't know about the ROC secret bunker buried deep under the fields behind our house. That would have been a target too: we would have been in the crater for that one.
So think about it: no matter how bad things are, if the Many-worlds explanation of quantum mechanics is correct, there's quite a few high-probability universes not far from here where things are a heck of a lot worse. And take comfort from the fact that we dodged that particular bullet in this one.