Sixty years ago today, a quiet and mild mannered Russian naval officer named Vasily Arkhipov most likely saved the world.
It was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world’s foremost superpowers to the brink of nuclear war. Arkhipov had cut his teeth the year before as a lead officer during the K-19 incident, when the Soviet Union’s first nuclear submarine nearly suffered a meltdown. His actions reportedly helped avert disaster and saved numerous lives, most likely earning him a senior position in another nuclear-armed submarine, B-59, as well as chief of staff of three other nuclear-armed subs that accompanied it.
The flotilla was secretly patrolling the waters near Cuba—so secretly, in fact, that even its crew had no idea what was going on. Unbeknownst to them, the United States had just imposed a blockade around Cuba, so the subs were suddenly ordered to stop and wait in the Caribbean—without explanation or further contact.
Pursuant to the blockade—officially a “quarantine” since the term blockade way legally an act of war—the U.S. Navy was scoping out Russian submarines and dropping depth charges into the water to force them to surface.
In response, the subs dove deeper to avoid detection, thereby cutting themselves off from any radio traffic. The last thing they had picked up from American media was that Russia had secretly brought missiles to Cuba, a U.S. spy plane had been shot down there, and President Kennedy had ordered a blockade to prevent anyone from passing through.
Days passed without updates, and the last contacts with the outside world indicated a serious confrontation. After all, these subs were ordered to launch nukes only if Russia itself had been attacked or was about to be—why else would they be there unless war was imminent? The U.S. Navy continued dropping depth charges left and right, unaware that the subs had nukes. Such charges were designed to signal to the vessels that they had been found and to force them to come up for identification; they were not powerful enough to cause damage. Yet they were loud and powerful enough to shake up a large sub, and given the circumstances, they were easily mistaken as bombs. (Evidently, Kennedy had expressed worries that they could be misconceived as an attack.)
It certainly didn’t help that the air conditioning had broken down, raising temperatures up to 122ºF degrees in some sections, while power reserves were dropping, and carbon dioxide was building. Such conditions only added to the sense of dread and impending doom that things were going wrong.
After several days of silence, ongoing “bombings”, and worsening conditions, B-59’s captain, Valentine Savitsky grew convinced that war had already broken out, and it was time for all four subs to launch their nukes accordingly. Each missile had the destructive power of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan; they could easily vaporize a large vessel—and there were eleven making up the U.S. naval group above—a result that could very well have triggered a nuclear response from the U.S. and set off a chain reaction of devastation.
The details are spotty, and much of what occurred remains classified. Based on the accounts from those present, including an intelligence officer, Savitsky seemed adamant that the Cold War had grown hot, and it was time to act: “Maybe the war has already started up there … We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.” The exhausted and nervous captain ordered the nuclear-tipped torpedo to be readied; the next senior officer agreed. And that’s when the soft-spoken 34-year-old Arkhipov came in.
Soviet naval protocol generally required only two senior officers of a submarine to authorize a nuclear strike. But since B-59 was the lead vessel in a flotilla, the captain also needed his executive officer, and the chief of staff of all four subs, to sign off as well: Arkhipov. The three men argued, two against one, that they were obliged to “retaliate”. Arkhipov steadfastly refused: Amid all the tension and uncertainty and fear, he reportedly maintained his characteristic calm, trying to persuade both his senior compatriots that there was no war—what they were hearing were harmless depth charges.
The crisis-tested officer pointed out that the “explosions” were always heard left and then right, and while loud and imposing, they were consistently off target. Arkhipov correctly reasoned they were depth charges intended to force them up without harm.
Again, the full details of the conversation are unknown. But as evidenced by you reading this, no such launch ever happened: The Russian sub rose to the surface, where it was met by a U.S. destroyer. The Americans never boarded or inspected the vessel, and they would not learn there were nukes onboard the flotilla for another fifty years. The Russians turned away from Cuba and headed back to Russia, where they were debriefed.
Like so many unsung heroes, Arkhipov said little about the event, let alone his heroic role, due both to his usual modesty and to the fact that Soviet leaders were disappointed in the crew for having exposed their secret mission. Even so, it does not appear anyone was punished or penalized—nor were they praised—and the level-headed naval officer continued climbing the ranks of the Soviet Navy until just before the country collapsed.
Arkhipov evidently continued to live a quiet, unassuming life outside Moscow until he died in 1998, aged 72, from kidney cancer—possibly resulting from his exposure to radiation in the K-12 incident 40 years earlier.