Life as we know it, in all its forms, and all its splendour was close to being completely wiped out. If it were not for this man. Almost every one of us owes our lives to Vasili Arkhipov, A Soviet navy officer who made a choice on a submarine that may have prevented nuclear World War Three. In 1962, during the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union had enough weapons to destroy the world. October 1962 is the Cuban Missile Crisis. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to Cuba’s request to place missiles on the island. After the Americans had deployed missiles in Italy and Turkey that could strike Moscow.
Cuba wanted protection because the year before, Cuban exiles who opposed Fidel Castro’s regime tried to overthrow him with the covert support of the u-s government during the Bay of Pigs invasion. When American spy planes discovered Soviet missile bases on the island, President Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba so no sea traffic was allowed through. On October 27, American forces spotted a Soviet submarine hiding in the Caribbean.
The B-59 was on a top-secret mission to Cuba along with three other Soviet subs. The Americans dropped depth charges to try to get the sub to surface. These were low explosive ones, the size of hand grenades, and not meant to be lethal. But the crew interpreted this as an attack. They had not been in contact with Moscow for days and the submarine was too deep underwater to pick up any radio traffic, so they did not know whether war had broken out. Little did the Americans know the submarine was armed with a nuclear torpedo.
The captain, Valentin Savitsky, believed his crew was about to be blown into pieces. The intelligence officer aboard the submarine later recounted the exhausted caption’s emotional outburst: “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.” Savitsky ordered the nuke to be assembled for launch. The nuke had the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Moscow had already authorized the crew to launch the torpedo if they deemed it necessary.
Had it been launched, had it hit one of the many U.S. vessels nearby, it would have likely set off a chain reaction, leading to full out nuclear war. That would have caused global devastation and an unimaginable number of deaths. But it didn’t happen. Because of Arkhipov. He was 34 years old. His wife described him as a modest, soft-spoken man. Arkhipov was the flotilla commander responsible for three submarines on that secret mission.
The protocol for launching the torpedo was that Captain Savitsky needed the approval of two others: his deputy political officer Ivan Maslennikov and Arkhipov, who was equal in rank to Savitsky. Maslennikov said yes to the launch. Arkhipov said no. He refused to sanction the strike. Based on later interviews, it appears Arkhipov tried to calm the captain down and talk him out of any rash actions. He kept a cool head when conditions inside the sub were boiling.
Temperatures reached 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Arkiphov tried to reason with Captain Savitsky by explaining they were not in danger because the depth charges appeared to be warning shots since they were being dropped left and right but always off target. While this was happening, President Kennedy was worried that the Russians would mistake the depth charges for an attack. His brother Robert Kennedy later described the president’s stress levels: “These few minutes were the time of greatest worry for the president. His hand went up to his face and covered his mouth and he closed his fist.”
In the end, the torpedo was not launched. The captain made the decision to come to the surface. The Americans did not inspect the sub so they had no idea there was a nuclear weapon on board. The submarine returned home. The U.S. wouldn’t find out that a torpedo was on board until 40 years later, when the former enemies met at a reunion and shared the story for the first time. Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy administration, later said act that greatly benefitted mankind. His daughter Elena said her father acted like a man who knew what disasters could come from radiation.
Arkhipov was exposed to radiation during an accident aboard a nuclear submarine in 1961. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, he continued with the Russian navy and was eventually promoted to vice admiral. He died from kidney cancer likely caused by radiation in 1998. He was 72 years old. So when you look around the world in all its forms and all its splendor, remember that if it were not for a naval officer, who tried to calm a captain down despite depth charges, extreme heat, stress, and isolation, We would probably not be here today.