Often times, people and events are covered on this channel that have genuinely managed to influence the history of humankind – for better or worse. Some of these people are more well known than others. Now, what if I told you that you owe your life to a relatively unknown Soviet Navy Officer. But not just you, though, I do as well, and more or less everyone alive today.
Because it was the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. On the 27th of October 1962, the B-59 submarine was trapped under an American fleet and, in their perception, was under attack by depth charges exploding around them. The submarine had embarked on a mission from the Soviet Union nearly four weeks earlier, in order to guard Soviet weapon transports to Cuba. Onboard were 70 crewmen. The three most senior officers were Captain Valentin Savitsky, the political officer Semonovich Maslennikov and the 2nd Lieutenant Vasily Arkhipov.
The B-59 was a submarine that initially was built for Arctic expeditions and was driven by diesel. It was now stuck underwater near Cuba, in a climate that it wasn’t built for. According to letters from the crew of the submarine, the inside would often reach temperatures over 50 degrees with poorly filtered oxygen and mounting pressure from the depths. All in all, Soviet submarines didn’t have the ideal circumstances to make rational decisions in.
There also was a US fleet guarding Cuba, consisting of the USS Randolph and 11 destroyers. They received orders, when they detected unidentified submarines, to use depth charges to force submarines to the surface. Now, President John F. Kennedy worried about this practice because the subs could mistake the depth charges for an actual attack. According to Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother, the depth charges were ‘the greatest source of worry for the president.’ And, well, funnily enough, President Kennedy wasn’t too wrong to worry about the practice. When the US fleet realised there was an unidentified submarine, they launched the depth charges to try and force it to surface.
In the B-59 its commanders and crew thought they were under attack when depth charges exploded around them. The fact the submarine had lost all radio contact with Moscow days before didn’t really help the situation. They never received the message that depth charges would be used by the US navy to try and establish contact with submarines. The submarine had also listened to US radio broadcasts, and from those programs, its crew understood that the US knew missiles were being shipped to Cuba in secret and that Cuba had shot down a US spy plane earlier that day. So the crew knew of the troubled situation on the surface, and now they were being bombarded with depth charges. It caused them to dive even further down below to avoid the impact of the charges but resulted in them unable to listen to the American radio stations as well.
Taking all things into consideration two of the submarine’s commanders figured the Third World War had broken out and decided to launch nuclear torpedoes against the US war fleet. For a nuclear torpedo to be launched three commanders had to agree to the launch, however. And this is where Arkhipov came in.
Arkhipov was well-known among Soviet navy personnel and although formally he was outranked by Savitsky, in practice they were on equal footing. He thanked his status to an incident that occurred a year beforehand when he was the second commander on the Soviet K-19 nuclear submarine that suffered a near-meltdown. Following the accident Arkhipov went to repair the reactor, being exposed to much nuclear radiation. Meanwhile, a mutiny broke out among its crew and was only subdued because Arkhipov openly supported the submarine’s captain. Because of his heroic actions during that incident, at least among navy circles, he became a respected commander.
According to eyewitness accounts, a heated debate broke out onboard between Savitsky, Maslennikov and Arkhipov. The latter tried to convince the other commanders that if the war had broken out the US fleet would have scored a direct hit instead of exploding depth charges around them. Furthermore, it was the protocol that nuclear missiles only could be used if the Soviet Union was under direct attack, or an attack was imminent. The submarine was incredibly close to launching a nuclear missile against the US fleet and only because Arkhipov kept a cool head he managed to prevent it.
Because the necessary unanimity to use nuclear weapons wasn’t achieved, eventually, the commanders decided to rise to the surface instead. On the surface, a US destroyer sailed past, but no one entered the submarine. This meant the US navy had no idea there was a nuclear warhead on board, nor how close they got to all-out nuclear war. If the missile had been launched, it would have led to a chain effect where the US retaliated, and the Soviet Union retaliated again, with complete nuclear destruction of the world as a result.
As for Arkhipov, as far as we know he wasn’t punished, but he wasn’t lauded either. He became a commander on his own submarine and eventually commanded an entire submarine squadron. In 1975 he was promoted to rear admiral and became head of the Kirov naval academy. He ended his Navy career with the rank of vice admiral. He died in 1998 at the age of 72, from kidney cancer, supposedly caused by his exposure to radiation on the K-19 submarine a year before the Cuba Crisis. Forty years after the Cuba Crisis in 2002 the director of the national security archive, Thomas Blanton, stated that a man “with the name of Vasily Arkhipov saved the world.”
There was another nuclear scare over 20 years later. Because of a faulty detection system commanding officer, Stanislav Petrov had to determine whether or not a nuclear strike was launched against the Soviet Union. His decision not to retaliate that night also saved the entire world from a nuclear war. If you’d like to know more about that, check out my article about the nuclear close call of 1983.