The Story of Vasili Arkhipov
This story came to me via Quora, I’d never heard about this man before now but understood right away his life impacted my own and the rest of the world. Some of you may have heard about him others maybe not, either way I’m going to present it to you just the way I got it.
Khrushchev and Kennedy During the Missile Crisis
A Soviet naval officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he countermanded a superior’s orders to launch nuclear torpedos, thus averting a catastrophic nuclear war. Thomas Blanton (then-director of the National Security Archive) said: “A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”
Trying to get the Russian Sub to Surface
At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of 11 United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping practice depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine’s crew had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic, so those on board did not know whether war had broken out. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, believing that a war might already have started, wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.
Standing Firm is Important
Three officers on board the submarine had to agree unanimously to authorize the launch: Captain Savitsky; the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov; and the second-in-command Arkhipov. An argument broke out among the three, with Arkhipov the only holdout against the launch.
A Scene We all Recognize
Although Arkhipov was only second-in-command of submarine B-59, he was commander of the entire flotilla of submarines, including B-4, B-36 and B-130, and equal in rank to Captain Savitsky. According to author Edward Wilson, the reputation Arkhipov gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year’s K-19 incident also helped him prevail in the debate. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow. This presumably averted the nuclear warfare which could possibly have ensued had the torpedo been fired. The submarine’s batteries had run very low and the air-conditioning had failed, so it was forced to surface amidst its U.S. pursuers and head home. Washington’s message that practice depth charges were being used to signal the submarines to surface never reached B-59, and Moscow claims it has no record of receiving it.
Nuclear Weapons on Cuba were unknown at the time
A Soviet strike against a US warship would have also prompted the American invasion of Cuba. Soviet forces on the island would have followed standing orders to defend themselves with the very effective tactical nuclear weapons they had surreptitiously stationed on Cuban soil for precisely such an eventuality. At the time these events unfolded, even the CIA was completely unaware that such weapons existed 90 miles from their border.
Why Nuclear Weapons really are a good deterrent to War
Of course, there might not have been very much Cuba left to invade. Had the Soviet torpedo vaporized the USS Randolf, nuclear clouds would quickly have spread. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations. An orgiastic Götterdämmerung would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including those in non-belligerent states.
Василий Александрович Архипов (30 January 1926 – 19 August 1998)
At this stage in the game, you can best thank your savior by raising a glass to his health. “Ваше здоровье, Василий Александрович!”