The Cold War was an exceedingly frightening time to be, well, anywhere. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the US and Soviet Union to the precipice of open nuclear war, was perhaps the most terrifying event in the second half of the 20th century. And while most knew we dodged a bullet, almost no one knew just how close we came to WWIII, or the name of the man who saved the world.
He was Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet Naval officer serving on the B-59 submarine. On Oct. 27 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US Navy detected the B-59 in the waters surrounding Cuba. Eleven destroyers and one aircraft carrier pursued the submarine, dropping practice depth charges (containing small amounts of explosives) around the B-59 to force it to the surface. The US sent transmissions explaining that these were warning charges, but they never reached the B-59.
The submarine’s crew hadn’t been in contact with Moscow in a number of days. The only news they received came from American radio, which was filled with inflamed stories about the impending US invasion of Cuba. Their cooling system had broke, and the crew sat in the sweltering submarine, charges exploding around them, believing WWIII had started and they were about to be sunk.
The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, assuming they were doomed, prepared the sub’s ten-kiloton nuclear torpedo and aimed it at the USS Beale, the destroyer that was pursuing them. Savistsky ordered the crew to fire the torpedo and the political officer confirmed the order. In most cases, this was all the authorization a nuclear launch required. But luckily for us, Arkhipov was on board and, as the captain of the entire submarine fleet, also had a vote. He withheld his authorization, and the nuclear torpedo was never fired. Later that day, JFK and Nikita Khrushchev came to an agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the Soviet Union agreed to remove all missiles from Cuba in exchange for the removal of US missiles in southern Italy and Turkey.
If not for Arkhipov’s prudence and composure in an unimaginably hectic situation, the torpedo would have been fired and the Beale would have been vaporized in a mushroom cloud. What would have happened next is up for debate, but there certainly wouldn’t have been a crisis-ending deal between JFK and Khrushchev, and it is very likely that the US would have retaliated. To get an idea what a US retaliation would have looked like you can refer to the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US strategy for general nuclear war from 1961 to 2003. If implemented, the US would have fired 5,500 nuclear weapons, killing hundreds of millions of people including over half the population of the Soviet Union.
Today, nuclear proliferation continues to be a pressing concern. Terrorist groups have reached unprecedented levels of organization and financial support, while the US, somewhat perplexingly, continues to build its nuclear arsenal. It's estimated that the United States now has the nuclear capability to blow up the earth five times over.
With nuclear weapons still posing a threat to our survival, the lesson we should take from Arkhipov’s heroism is that world leaders can lose control during war, and that our final and possibly best fail-safe against nuclear war is human decency. Whether you find that comforting or terrifying is up to you.