March 23, 2023

Why may a Soviet submarine officer have been “the most important person in modern history” on this day 60 years ago?

How one man stopped the Cuban missile crisis from going nuclear…
How one man stopped the Cuban missile crisis from going nuclear…

This newspaper map from the time of the Cuban missile crisis shows the distances from Cuba of various cities on the North American continent. Bita Honarvar/Vox; Bettmann Archive via JournoNews Images

Homo sapiens have been on the planet for approximately 300,000 years, or over 109 million days. The most dangerous of all those days—the day when our species came closest to extinction than any other—happened 60 years ago today, on October 27, 1962.And the man who most likely did the most to keep that perilous day from turning into an existential disaster was a quiet Soviet naval officer named Vasili Arkhipov.

Arkhipov was serving aboard the nuclear-armed Soviet submarine B-59 in international waters near Cuba on that day. It was the height of the Cuban missile crisis, which began earlier that month when a US U-2 spy plane spotted evidence of newly constructed installations in Cuba, where it turned out that Soviet military advisers were assisting in the construction of sites capable of launching nuclear missiles at the US, which was less than 100 miles away.

This led to the most dangerous standoff of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union: 13 days of high-stakes gamesmanship between two nuclear powers who seemed to be just one mistake away from all-out war.

President John F. Kennedy had ordered a “quarantine” of Cuba, stationing a flotilla of naval ships off the island’s coast to prevent Soviet ships from transporting weapons to Cuba and demanding that the Soviet Union remove the missiles. The Russian submarine B-59, which had been running submerged for days, was cornered on October 27 by 11 US destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph. The US ships began to drop depth charges around the submarine.

As US officials had already informed Moscow, the goal was not to destroy it, but to force it to surface. But Washington didn’t know that the B-59’s officers had lost touch with their superiors and had every reason to think that their American counterparts were trying to sink them.

“That was it, the end,” crew member Vadim Orlov told National Geographic in 2016. “It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel that was constantly being pounded with a sledgehammer.”

How one man stopped the Cuban missile crisis from going nuclear...
How one man stopped the Cuban missile crisis from going nuclear…

A US Navy Aircraft photograph shows a Soviet attack submarine as it moved along the surface in the vicinity of Cuban quarantine operations during the Cuban missile crisis. Bettmann Archive via JournNews Images

In this case, the end meant not only the fate of the submarine and its crew, but potentially the fate of the entire world. Cut off from outside contact, buffeted by depth charges, with their air conditioning broken and temperatures and carbon dioxide levels rising in the submarine, the officers of B-59 came to the obvious conclusion that global war had already begun. However, the submarine possessed a weapon that US officers were unaware of: a 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo. And its officers were given permission by their superiors to launch it without the approval of Moscow.

Two senior officers on the sub wanted to launch the nuclear torpedo. This included its captain, Valentin Savitsky, who exclaimed, according to the US National Security Archive, “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all — we will not be the fleet’s shame. “

Fortunately, the captain did not have complete control over the launch. Vasili Arkhipov, the 36-year-old second captain and brigade chief of staff, was the only senior officer who refused to agree. He persuaded the submarine’s top officers that the depth charges were intended to signal B-59 to surface—there was no other way for the US ships to communicate with the Soviet submarine—and that launching the nuclear torpedo would be a fatal mistake. The submarine returned to the surface and steamed back toward the Soviet Union, away from Cuba.

Arkhipov’s cool-headed heroics did not bring the Cuban missile crisis to a close. On the same day, US U-2 pilot Maj. Rudolf Anderson was shot down over Cuba while on a reconnaissance mission. Anderson was the first and only casualty of the crisis, which could have led to war had President Kennedy not concluded that Soviet Premier Nikolai Khrushchev had given the order to fire.

That close call jolted both leaders, prompting them to initiate back-channel negotiations that resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet missiles in Cuba; a subsequent withdrawal of US missiles in Turkey in response; and the end of the world’s closest approach to total nuclear war.

In a situation as complex and tense as the Cuban missile crisis, when both sides were working with limited information, a ticking clock, and tens of thousands of nuclear warheads (the majority of which were owned by the US), no single act was truly decisive for war or peace. However, Arkhipov’s actions deserve special mention. Arkhipov kept his head while trapped in a diesel-powered submarine thousands of miles from home, buffeted by exploding depth charges and threatened with suffocation and death. It would have been far more difficult for Kennedy and Khrushchev to back down if he had agreed to fire a nuclear torpedo, likely vaporizing a US aircraft carrier and killing thousands of sailors. And the most dangerous day in human history could very well have been our last.

Arkhipov was the first person to receive the Future of Life award from the Cambridge-based existential risk nonprofit, the Future of Life Institute (FLI), in 2017 for his bravery. It was posthumous—Archipov died in 1998, before his actions were widely publicized. At the award ceremony, FLI president Max Tegmark said that he may be “arguably the most important person in modern history.”

Since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, no nuclear weapon has been used in a war. But, as tensions between the United States and Russia rise over the Ukraine conflict, and Russian President Vladimir Putin makes veiled threats about using his country’s nuclear arsenal, we must remember the terrifying power of these world-ending weapons. And we should honor those, like Vasili Arkhipov, who choose life over extinction in existential crises.

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