Published: October 23, 2018
Everybody in the world born before October 27, 1962 probably owes their life to Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. He was the Russian naval officer who, on this day, refused to fire a nuclear torpedo at an American aircraft carrier, thus averting the probability of a third world war and thermo-nuclear destruction across the planet.
The confrontation was part of the Cuban missile crisis that had the world holding its breath for nearly two weeks.
In May 1962, Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro reached a “secret” agreement that allowed the Soviets to start building missile sites in Cuba, including stocking them with nuclear missiles – 42 of them.
After the bases were discovered by America in early October, President John F. Kennedy held a series of crisis talks with his advisers and later that month made a television broadcast to the nation, saying:
"This Government has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere. . .
"Several of them include medium-range ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead more than 1,000 nautical miles. Each is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area.
"Additional sites not yet completed appear to be designed for intermediate-range ballistic missiles capable of striking most of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere, ranging as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada, and as far south as Lima, Peru.
"In addition, jet bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, are now being uncrated and assembled in Cuba, while the necessary air bases are being prepared.
"To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. . .
"I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man.
"He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction . . . by withdrawing these weapons from Cuba. . ."
On 27 October, US Navy warships located the Soviet submarine B-59 near Cuba. They dropped explosives to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification not knowing that it was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo with roughly the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
The sub’s crew, who had been traveling for nearly four weeks, were very tired and unaware of what was going on around them. There had been little communication with Moscow.
The Americans continued to drop depth charges left and right of the hull. Inside, the sub was rocking, shaking with each new explosion.
The captain, Valentin Savitsky, believed that nuclear war had already broken out between the Soviet Union and the US and he ordered the B-59's ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.
An attack could not be launched, however, unless all three senior officers aboard the sub agreed. Arkhipov, the second-in-command, stood up to be counted and did not agree.
An account by intelligence officer Vadim Orlov suggests Arkhipov told the captain that the ship was not in danger. It was being asked to surface. Dropping depth charges left then right, noisy but always off target — those are signals, Arkhipov argued. They say, We know you’re there. Identify yourselves. Come up and talk.
Arkhipov vehemently argued that since no orders had come in a long time, such a drastic action as firing the nuclear torpedo was ill-advised and the sub should surface to contact Moscow.
It did so and was met by a US destroyer. The Americans didn’t board. There were no inspections. Instead, the Russians turned away from Cuba and headed north, back to Russia.
As they did so, Khrushchev, after a thirteen-day stand-off, offered to dismantle the Cuban bases if Kennedy lifted the blockade and promised not to invade Cuba. The crisis was over.
Arkhipov continued serving in the Soviet Navy. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1975 and retired in the mid-1980s. He died in 1999 at the age of 73 from complications due to radiation poisoning he had suffered early in his naval career.
In 2002, Tom Blanton, Director of the American research and archival institution, the National Security Archive, said that “a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world”.