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Meet Vasili Arkhipov, “The man who saved the world.”

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The article details how the decision of one man, Vasili Arkhipov, during the Cold War, averted nuclear war.

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet naval officer Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, the Brigade Chief of Staff on submarine B-59, refused to fire a nuclear missile and saved the world from World War III and nuclear disaster.

On October 22, 1962, after reviewing photographic evidence, President John F. Kennedy informed the world that the Soviet Union was building secret missile bases in Cuba, just 90 miles off the shores of Florida.

With Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the U.S. mainland, missiles launched from there would be able to strike most of the eastern United States within a matter of minutes.

For the next 13 days, the world held its breath as the Soviet Union and the United States confronted each other about missiles stationed in Cuba. While politicians sought a resolution to the standoff, no one was aware of the events taking place inside the Soviet submarine B-59 in the waters off the coast of Florida.

President Kennedy decided against a direct attack on Cuba, opting instead for a blockade around the island to prevent Soviet ships from accessing it, which he announced on Oct. 22. He then presented the Soviets with an ultimatum, demanding that they remove the nuclear missiles from Cuba.

In the words of John F. Kennedy administration staffer Arthur Schlesinger

“It was the most dangerous moment in human history.”

Through a series of tense negotiations over the coming days, the Americans and the Soviets worked out a deal to end the conflict. By Oct. 28, the Americans had agreed to remove their missiles from Turkey and the Soviets had agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba.

Four Soviet submarines were sent on a mission known only to a handful of Communist party officials. Under their orders, each submarine was to travel 7,000 miles from a top-secret naval base in the Arctic Circle across the Atlantic to be permanently stationed in Mariel, Cuba, where they would serve as the vanguard of a Soviet force a mere 90 miles from mainland America.

The commanders of each submarine had permission to act without direct orders from Moscow if they believed they were under threat. Each of the four subs was carrying what the Soviets called a ‘special weapon’, a single nuclear torpedo, comparable in strength to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The torpedo could be fired only if the submarine captain and political officer were in agreement.

Soviet Naval officer Vasili Arkhipov, 34, was one of the three commanders aboard the B-59 submarine near Cuba on Oct. 27.  They dove deep to conceal their presence after being spotted by the Americans and were thus cut off from communication with the surface.

In hopes of relocating the sub, the U.S. Navy began dropping non-lethal depth charges in hopes of forcing the vessel to surface. What the U.S. Navy didn’t realize was that the B-59 was armed with a nuclear torpedo.

Cut off from communication with the outside world, the panicked Soviet sailors feared that they were now under attack. From what little they knew of what was happening above the surface, it seemed possible that nuclear war had already broken out.

With tensions running high and the air conditioning out, the conditions inside the sub had begun to deteriorate quickly as the crew grew ever more fearful.

One of three captains on the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, decided that they had no choice but to launch their nuclear torpedo. Savitsky had his men ready the onboard missile, planning to aim it at one of the 11 U.S. ships in the blockade. However, Savitsky needed the approval of both of the sub’s other two captains before launching the weapon. The second captain, Ivan Maslennikov, approved the strike. But Vasili Arkhipov said no.

Somehow keeping a level head in the midst of chaos, Vasili Arkhipov reportedly managed to convince Savitsky that the Americans were not actually attacking them and that they were only firing depth charges in order to get their attention and merely draw them to the surface.

Vasili Arkhipov was right. The submarine surfaced and, satisfied that all-out war had not actually been taking place above, turned around and went on its way.

Had Vasili Arkhipov not been there to prevent the torpedo launch, historians agree that nuclear war would likely have begun.

“Had it been launched,” the Guardian wrote,

The fate of the world would have been very different: the attack would probably have started a nuclear war which would have caused global devastation, with unimaginable numbers of civilian deaths.

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov remained in the Soviet Navy until the 1980s and eventually died at the age of 72 in 1998. His heroic moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t become public knowledge until 2002. It was then that former Soviet officer Vadim Orlov, who was on the B-59 with Arkhipov, revealed what had happened on that fateful day.

Former Soviet officer Vadim Orlov

In 2002, Thomas Blanton, who was then director of the US National Security Archive, said that Arkhipov “saved the world”.


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