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How One Man Held Off Nuclear War

By Dr. César Chelala Created: October 25, 2012 Last Updated: October 29, 2012
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A P2V Neptune U.S. patrol plane flies over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis in this 1962 photograph. The world was closer to a nuclear conflict during the 1962 standoff between Cuba and the United States, than governments around the world realized. (Getty Images)

A P2V Neptune U.S. patrol plane flies over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis in this 1962 photograph. The world was closer to a nuclear conflict during the 1962 standoff between Cuba and the United States, than governments around the world realized. (Getty Images)

At the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, everybody remembers how close the world was to nuclear disaster as a result of the nuclear missiles installed in Cuba by the Soviet Union. The world was saved from that horrific scenario by the agreement between President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

It is possible that the world came even closer to annihilation, however, due to related events that began to be publicly known in 2002. Those events culminated in what is known as Black Saturday, and made U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara state that the United States came “very close” to nuclear war, “closer than we knew at the time.” The hero behind the events mentioned by McNamara was Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet naval officer. 

As politicians discussed how to solve the Cuban Missile Crisis four Soviet submarines were sent on a mission known only to a few top officials of the Communist Party. The destination was unknown, to be revealed once the commanders of the submarines were at sea. 

The order was for the four submarines to travel 7,000 miles, leaving from a secret base in the Arctic Circle. They would cross the Atlantic Ocean and remain at Mariel, Cuba, where they could serve as a vanguard for Soviet forces close to the mainland United States.

Probably because communication with Moscow wasn’t always easy, the submarine commanders had orders to act without superiors’ instructions if they deemed it necessary. Those orders involved even firing a nuclear torpedo of terrifying power called a “special weapon” by the Soviets, carried by each one of the submarines. 

There was, however, a very strict safety protocol that required that three persons within the submarine be in agreement to launch an attack: the captain, the political officer—both of whom had half a key to activate the release mechanism—plus the Commander of the fleet, Vasili Arkhipov. He was one of the few men who knew about the mission’s objectives in advance. The events are strikingly dramatized in the PBS TV documentary “The Man Who Saved the World.”

Unable to communicate with Moscow, the men in the B-59 were frightened and disconcerted.

The four submarines, among them the B-59, where Arkhipov was stationed, were diesel-powered and, according to the Americans, totally unfit for the mission. The Americans had deployed the most up-to-date and sophisticated submarine detection mechanisms which included destroyers, helicopters, and surveillance planes. At that time, President Kennedy had ordered U.S. ships to form a ring around Cuba to stop further flow of Soviet weapons. 40 destroyers, four aircraft carriers, and 358 aircraft were ordered to patrol the area.

The crew of the B-59 had been away from home for three and a half weeks, in trying conditions and cut off from communication with Moscow. The Soviet diesel electric subs had to surface to recharge their batteries but, afraid of being spotted by the Americans, the B-59 had to dive further down with only enough charge in their batteries to last for six hours. 

In the meantime American planes had spotted three submarines in the area, the B-59 among them. Kennedy, however, had given strict orders not to attack, but that once spotted the submarines should be driven to the surface. Unable to communicate with Moscow, the men in the B-59 were frightened and disconcerted.

 

The aircraft carrier USS Randolph had trapped the B-59 near Cuba and started dropping depth charges, a kind of explosives used to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. Because the B-59 was stationed too deep to monitor any radio signals, those on board didn’t know if war had broken out. 

The captain of the B-59 submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, thought that the war had started and wanted to launch a nuclear attack. A harsh argument broke out among the captain, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and Vasili Arkhipov, second in command in the submarine but Commander of the fleet of four submarines that included, in addition to the B-59, the B-4, B-36, and B-130.

Arkhipov’s position finally prevailed: he persuaded Savitsky to surface and await orders from Moscow. Thanks to his determination a nuclear war of devastating consequences was averted. A single man’s valor saved the world from annihilation.

Dr. César Chelala is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America Award.

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