Have you ever heard of Vasili Arkhipov? Most probably, you haven’t. Yet, this man stopped a nuclear war in 1962 and changed the course of history.
Keeping your cool, or rather, keeping a stable mind, is best during wartime. It’s even the best option at times of peace. Let’s face it, a level head is best in all situations.
It’s safe to say that many of us are alive today because of one man’s logical and calm thinking during this time. No, I’m not talking about President Kennedy. In fact, I speak of no American at all. In a sensitive time, this unlikely hero stopped the possible destruction of nations.
During the early stages of the Vietnam War, tensions were heightened. An integral part of this war was dealing with the Cuban missile crisis. Since presidents were changing office, this was an even more sensitive time.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
As per the agreement between Soviet premier Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, nuclear weapons would be brought from the Soviet Union to Cuba in order to fortify Cuba’s defenses. The thing is, the U.S. wasn’t going to allow missiles so close to Florida. Something had to be done. In 1962, in the climax of the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy blocked all access, by sea, to Cuba. And so, additional conflict arose.
The Russian crew sent by sea to Cuba was ordered to stop in the Caribbean Sea. Here, one sub, manned by Commander Valentin Savitsky, was spotted by Americans. He was instructed to sink below the surface with the other submarines to avoid being seen. The Russian submarines were so deep they couldn’t hear any U.S. media and couldn’t move forward because U.S. Navy had completely cut them off from their destination. For all they knew, the war between Russia and the United States had begun.
Americans begin to drop depth charges from left to right. This rocks the submarines causing Savitsky to panic. He and the other captains had the authority to launch torpedoes at any time deemed necessary, and the final decision was minutes away. Americans had no idea the nuclear tactical devices were onboard the Russian submarines and weren’t aware that Savitsky was growing more nervous by the minute-ready to launch the weapons. As temperatures climbed above 100 degrees aboard the sub because of the broken air conditioner, Savitsky felt he had only one choice.
Vadim Orlov, an intelligence officer recounts,
‘The Americans hit us with something stronger than grenades. We thought, that’s it, the end.’
Savitsky decided to do it. He had readied the missile, and the second in command had approval to launch. For days, there was no contact with the Soviet Union. Savitsky felt he had a perfect reason to retaliate against what he thought was warfare. There were 11 U.S. Naval ships nearby and they were targets for a nuke comparable to the bomb of Hiroshima.
Fortunately, Savitsky didn’t do it. Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, flotilla commander, responsible for three Russian subs and Savitsky’s equal, somehow thwarted the panic decision. It’s clear that, in order to launch, there would have to be three senior officers in support of the decision. Arkhipov did not support launching the missiles against the U.S. According to Russian reporter Alexander Mozgovoi, an American writer and Intelligence officer Orlov, Arkhipov convinced Savitsky that the depth charges were intended to make the submarine surface. The Russians, according to Arkhipov were not in danger. It’s not known, for certain, what Vasili Arkhipov said, but he apparently had a level head during the crisis. The Russian submarine rose to the surface, greeted by a U.S. destroyer. The Russians, at that point, turned back to the Soviet Union.
Conditions of the submarine, as stated above, were horrific. Anatoly Andreev, crew member kept a journal on these conditions:
For the last four days, they didn’t even let us come up to the periscope depth … My head is bursting from the stuffy air. … Today three sailors fainted from overheating again … The regeneration of air works poorly, the carbon dioxide content [is] rising, and the electric power reserves are dropping. Those who are free from their shifts, are sitting immobile, staring at one spot. … Temperature in the sections is above 50 [122ºF].
Thomas Blanton, former director of the National Security Archive, said, ‘This guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.’’
It seems that Arkhipov talked Savitsky down from his decision and was rewarded for his actions, back in his homeland. Arkhipov was a Soviet hero, and an unsung hero to other nations as well. If not for his actions, the course of history would be greatly altered.
It’s always best to keep a level head, in all situations, don’t you think?
Watch this documentary to learn more about the Cuban missile crisis and the role of Vasili Arkhipov:
- National Geographic
Image credit: M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya