In October 1962, the world was on the verge of nuclear collapse. Both the US and USSR superpowers, on the edge, had their fingers getting closer and closer to the atomic button. Inside a submarine patrolling the Caribbean, a Soviet vice-admiral made a decision that changed history…
October 1962. All the world’s eyes are set on the Cuban archipelago. As a Soviet enclave close to American soil, the Caribbean island has been turned into a fortified castle. A year before, the Bay of Pigs invasion had failed spectacularly, making JFK the laughing stock of Cuban diplomats. Since then, hundreds of rockets and missiles have been stored on the island, directly imported from the USSR, closely followed by Soviet rocket scientists. All that, less than a hundred miles away from the American shore…
This was more than enough to alarm JFK. “This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base–by the presence of these large, long range, and clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction–constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas,” the President said. He immediately ordered the embargo of Cuba and deployed his fleet to patrol Caribbean waters. Anxiety was reaching its climax, while four Soviet submarines, equipped with nuclear torpedoes, secretly approached the island…
On October 27, both fleets eventually met. The four submarines faced eleven US destroyers and one aircraft carrier. But the Americans did not know about the atomic threat they faced (a 15-kiloton charge, no less, as much as what turned Hiroshima into ashes and dust). The commanding officers firmly believed that the reason Soviet submarines were in the vicinity was because of mechanical malfunctions. They could not have been more wrong.
In deep waters
The Soviets immediately wanted to make use of that indifference. Valentin Savitsky, captain of one of the B-59 submarines, was convinced that a nuclear war was bound to happen, and his finger hovered over the red button. Why did he hesitate? Because of protocol: before launching a nuclear torpedo, the captain had to obtain permission from his second-in-command (Vasily Arkhipov) and the political officer (Ivan Maslennikov), both present aboard. A lively conversation started among the three men, upon whom the fate of millions of individuals depended… Inside the metal body of the submarine, the atmosphere was thick; the ventilation system had overheated, and the temperature was over 50°C (120°F).
Hours passed, slowly. The submarine was tossed about by explosions: following the procedure ordered by Kennedy, US soldiers had been activating underwater mines to force the Soviet B-59 to surface. Its captain was sweaty and nervous. “We’re gonna blast them now!” Savitsky told his men. “We will die, but we will sink them all.” Next to him, far less agitated was his second-in-command, Arkhipov, who had kept a cool head. The latter insisted that those explosions were merely warnings, and got his captain to see sense. Eventually the submarine surfaced, and when its hatch opened, Soviet soldiers were relieved to see that jazz was playing on the US carrier’s deck. War had not erupted while they were underwater!
Détente, at last
On October 28, Nikita Khrushchev and JFK managed to find a diplomatic way out of the Cuban crisis. Nuclear missiles were disarmed. The Soviet fleet retreated (a move which made Fidel Castro raging mad) and this ended what one of Kennedy’s colleagues, Arthur Schlesinger, called “the the most dangerous moment in human history”.
The Caribbean crisis remained secret for a number of years until it was disclosed in 2002, during a conference on the subject. Investigating recently declassified material, the director of the National Security Archive, Thomas Blanton, said on that occasion that “this man, Arkhipov, saved the world”. However the whole event remains shrouded in mystery to this day, as Vasily Arkhipov, whom his wife Olga described as a humble and simple man, had passed away four years before the conference. The cause of his death, it is rumored, was radiation poisoning.
- Priscilla Roberts, Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide, ABC-Clio, 2012.
- Peter A. Huchthausen, October Fury, John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
- Robert Krulwich, “You (and Almost Everyone You Know) Owe Your Life to This Man”, National Geographic, March 24, 2016.
- Marion Lloyd, “Soviets close to using A-Bomb in 1962 crisis, forum is told”, The Boston Globe, October 13, 2002.
- Rachel Souerbry, “How Vasili Arkhipov Literally Saved The World From Cold War Nuclear Armageddon”, All That’s Interesting, June 7, 2018.