You many not be familiar with the name Vasili Arkhipov, but maybe you should be. He's the Soviet Navy man who stopped nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the '60s. Arkhipov, AKA the man who avoided nuclear war, somehow persuaded fellow officers not to fire at the United States during an extremely tense time. According to Thomas Blanton, former director of the National Security Archive, Arkhipov "saved the world."
During the Cold War, in October 1962, the United States learned that the Soviet Union had secretly placed missiles in Cuba. At the time, President John F. Kennedy was still reeling after failing to overthrow Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, so learning that Cuba and the Soviet Union joined forces to construct ballistic missile facilities in Cuba was not good news. After 13 days of intense negotiations, President Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to an agreement and averted a nuclear war. Khrushchev removed the missiles from Cuba and the United States did not attack the island. One year later, the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union partially banned the testing of nuclear weapons.
However, in 2017, threats made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to fire missiles at Guam, a US territory, resurfaced tensions like those that ran rampant during the Cold War. President Donald Trump said there would be "fire and fury" if North Korea made any indication it would launch a missile at the Western Pacific island, and Defense Secretary James Mattis added that if North Korea escalated the situation it would be "game on." All one can hope is that there are still a few Arkhipovs around to handle situations like these.
When The Russians Rose To The Surface, They Encountered A US Destroyer – But The Americans Never Knew About The Nuclear Weapons
The debate between the captain and Arkhipov took place in an old, diesel-powered submarine designed for Arctic travel that was stuck in a tropical climate. And yet, Arkhipov kept his cool. After their confrontation, the missile was not readied for firing. Instead, the Russian sub rose to the surface, where it was met by a US destroyer. The Americans didn't board. There were no inspections, so the US Navy had no idea that there were nuclear torpedoes on those subs – and wouldn't know for around 50 years, when the former belligerents met at a 50th reunion. Instead, the Russians turned away from Cuba and headed north, back to Russia.
To Make Matters Worse, US Forces Delivered Warning Shots At The Surfacing Soviet Sub
A captain on one of the Soviet subs, Ryurik Ketov, later recalled how fellow submarine Captain 2nd Rank Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky tried to avoid America's anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces. However, the battery on Savitsky's submarine died, and he had no choice but to rise to the surface to recharge. Ketov wrote:
"While surfacing, his boat 'came under machine-gun fire from [U.S. ASW S-2] Tracker aircraft. The fire rounds landed either to the sides of the submarine’s hull or near the bow. All these provocative actions carried out by surface ships in immediate proximity, and ASW aircraft flying some 10 to 15 meters [less than 30 to 50 feet] above the boat had a detrimental impact on the commander, prompting him to take extreme measures…..the use of special weapons.'"
According to Martin J. Sherwin, a member of an ASW squadron flight crew, US forces were ordered not to fire live ammunition near the submarine. So why did they do it? Maybe the Tracker crew didn't receive the order. Or maybe they were hyped up after they spent two days following the submarine and wanted to prove who was boss. It's likely they had no idea that their actions could have resulted in World War III.
Ketov continued in his account:
“Mere chance prevented [Savitsky] from resorting to the use of ‘special weapons’ at this time. A delay in diving time and the prudence of the brigade’s Chief of Staff Vasilii Arkhipov—who happened to be on board—prevented the combat operations which the B-59 could have initiated.”
Conditions On The Soviet Submarines Were Deplorable And This Didn't Help The Soviet Mindset
Savitsky's B-59 (designated Foxtrot class by NATO) was equipped with a standard propulsion system. The sub's three diesel engines were linked to several batteries that would run out of power if they weren't regularly charged. US forces were taunting Savitsky's submarine with hand grenades and other minor explosives, and Savitsky avoided surfacing to recharge the batteries.
Meanwhile, the men inside the submarine were suffering immensely. The water in the Caribbean was very warm, and it enveloped the submarine, causing it to heat up. The lowest temperature inside was 113 degrees Fahrenheit, while the temperature in the engine room peaked at 140 degrees. The Foxtrot submarines were not equipped with air conditioning because the vessels were supposed to be deployed in cooler waters. The air inside was putrid, and there was little fresh water. The crewmen got rashes and ulcers because of the hot, sticky environment. They looked so bad and sickly that they were compared to Holocaust survivors.
Rather Than Getting Reprimanded, Arkhipov Was Given A Promotion
Experts agree that had the Soviet sub fired nuclear torpedoes during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States would have responded in kind, and US aircraft carriers in the area were carrying nuclear depth charges. It's unclear what catastrophic results such a nuclear war would have had on the world. Meanwhile, Arkhipov’s actions to prevent nuclear disaster were reportedly accepted by the Soviet government, and he was not reprimanded for his actions. In fact, he later received a promotion.