I ran across this article and I thought it was fascinating background on the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was a lot of material that I already knew about the crisis, I had also read the book The Penkovsky Papers that talked about the missile crisis, but I remembered something about a Soviet Submarine and an incident. Well this article reminded me of it.
Vasili Arkhipov was a Soviet naval officer who, upon making a split
second decision, prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating into
a nuclear war.
It is fitting to begin three years after Mr.
Arkhipov’s death. On October 13, 2002, on the 40th anniversary of the
Cuban Missile Crisis, the director of the National Security Archive
Thomas Blanton remarked that “a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the
Arkhipov had come a long way from the peasant family that lived near
Moscow in which he had grown up. Educated in the Pacific Higher Naval
School of the Soviet Union, he would serve in the closing month of World
War II aboard a minesweeper during the Soviet campaign against the
Empire of Japan.
After that, he spent two years in the Caspian Higher Naval School and
went on to do submarine service on vessels from the Soviet Navy’s Black
Sea, Baltic, and Northern Sea fleets. In 1961, he became deputy
commander of the new Hotel-class missile submarine K-19.
At a time
when the U.S. and the Soviets were locked in a costly arms race, the
K-19 was a new vessel the Soviets hoped would provide them with the
ability to launch their missiles at their Cold War rival.
Nikolai Shumkov commanded the K-19’s maiden voyage, and his task was to
test a torpedo fitted with a nuclear warhead. The detonation of this
weapon formed a huge plume of radioactive water from its detonation
force of some 4.8 kilotonnes.
During exercises in the North
Atlantic, the K-19 suffered a major leak in its reactor coolant system.
The long-range radio had also been disabled during another incident,
rendering the sub unable to contact its HQ in Moscow. This incident saw
several crew members, along with Arkhipov, exposed to radiation.
backed Captain Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev, who feared that the crew
would mutiny out of sheer desperation, by helping him dump most of the
ship’s small arms arsenal overboard in order to avert the possibility
that this potential mutiny would be an armed one.
warships that had heard the sub’s desperate short-range distress calls
came to the area and offered assistance. But Commander Zateyev refused
help, fearing Soviet military secrets would be compromised.
K-19 finally made it to another Soviet submarine and its crew was
evacuated. The K-19 was then towed home. This incident, it can be safely
assumed, had a profound effect on Arkhipov.
About a year later
during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arkhipov was second-in-command of the
Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 which was operating near Cuba at the
time. As the crisis escalated, U.S. naval vessels, clearly unaware of
the fact that Soviet submarines operating in the area were carrying
nuclear torpedoes, dropped depth charges on those vessels in a bid to
get them to surface so that they would not break the United States naval
blockade on Cuba.
When they did so on the B-59,
the captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky believed that war had broken
out and accordingly wanted to fire a nuclear torpedo at the vessels
firing them on.
The three officers who were authorized to launch
this torpedo, which included Arkhipov, the captain, and the vessel’s
political officer, Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, quickly reviewed their
options. The captain and the political officer were in favor of firing.
Arkhipov argued against launching the torpedo stating they should await
orders from Moscow.
They were forced to surface at the behest of
the fleet of eleven U.S. Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier that
was engaging them. It was then they learned that no shooting war had
broken out between the US and Soviet forces, but by arguing against the
launching of the nuclear-tipped torpedo, Arkhipov in effect had averted
the start of a nuclear war between the two superpowers.
fact, Washington had issued a message stating they would be using
‘practice’ depth charges to force Soviet submarines they determined to
be in breach of their blockade to surface. B-59 hadn’t received that
message as they were too deep to pick up radio signals.
worth noting that when coming under fire Arkhipov knew he was risking
two things; getting killed by simply surfacing if a shooting war was in
fact underway and starting a nuclear war by returning fire in such a
manner if one wasn’t underway. So his coolness in making a potentially
fatal decision under such serious circumstances spoke well of him.
it was retrospectively appreciated just how close nuclear war really
was during that time. Robert McNamara acknowledged, after a reevaluation
of the circumstances and the risks of confrontation during those
fateful days that the United States and the U.S.S.R. were “closer [to
nuclear war] than we knew at the time.”
As for Arkhipov, after
those two dangerous episodes in the early 1960s, he continued to serve
in the Soviet Navy, eventually being promoted to rear admiral and
becoming head of the Kirov Naval Academy. He retired in the mid-1980s
and died in 1999.
He died an unsung hero and even to this day the
fateful decision he took on October 27, 1962, is relatively
unacknowledged and not widely known.