It was the height of the Cuban missile crisis, October 27, 1962. It was the most dangerous moment in the Cold War, when the US and USSR stood toe-to-toe and each dared the other to risk global nuclear annihilation for strategic gain. Both President Kennedy and Premier Khruschchev were wary of the risks, but both were being pressured by hard-line cabinet members. Khrushchev placed nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, but didn’t announce it because he didn’t want to create a panic in the US. The ploy backfired when the US CIA found out about the missiles and recommended to Kennedy that this was the opportunity they had been waiting for, the excuse to invade Cuba and replace Castro with a government friendly to the USA.
Kennedy successfully defused the call for an invasion, but substituted a blockade of Cuba, allowing no ships to enter Cuban waters or planes to enter Cuban air space. Blockades are an act of war. Kennedy tried to soft-pedal our aggression by calling it a “quarantine”. Both nations’ nuclear arsenals–thousands of hydrogen bombs–were on high alert. There was a standoff with Soviet warships outside Havana’s harbor. A Soviet submarine, however, was undeterred. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the submarine was armed with nuclear weapons. US battleships set off depth charges to warn the sub to take the quarantine seriously.
It worked. They were locked below the surface, afraid to surface, and running out of air. Everyone in the crew was shaken up by explosions that echoed like hammers on hollow metal. Some crew members passed out from toxic CO2 levels in the sub.
Panic ensued. Commander Valentin Savitsky tried unsuccessfully to reach the general staff. He then ordered the officer in charge of the nuclear torpedo to prepare it for battle, shouting, “Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here. We are going to blast them now. We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our Navy.” [Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznik, Untold History of the US Read the book. Watch the video.]
Savitsky turned to the other two officers. Unanimous consent of the three was the required protocol for using the nuclear torpedo. One officer agreed immediately, but the second, Vasily Arkhipov kept a calmer mind and a clearer head. He was able to calm the other two, and convince them to be patient.
We are all grateful to Vasily Arkhipov. In that act of reason and restraint under duress, one man saved the world from a war that would have instantly killed a billion people, and, over several years, wiped out most of the world’s human and animal populations through fallout and nuclear winter.