Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Man Who Saved the World

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov (30 January 1926 – 19 August 1998) was a Soviet naval officer. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he prevented the launch of a nuclear torpedo and therefore a possible nuclear war. Thomas Blanton (then director of the National Security Archive) said in 2002 that "a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."

On 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping practice depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine's crew had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic, so those on board did not know whether war had broken out. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, believing that a war might already have started, wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.

Unlike the other subs in the flotilla, on board the B-59 three officers had to agree unanimously to authorize the launch: Captain Savitsky; the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov; and the second-in-command Arkhipov. Typically, Russian submarines that were armed with the "Special Weapon" only required the captain to get authorization from the political officer if he felt it was necessary to launch the nuclear torpedo, but due to his position as flotilla commander, the B-59's captain was also required to gain Akrhipov's approval. An argument broke out among the three, in which only Arkhipov was against the launch.

Although Arkhipov was only second-in-command of submarine B-59, he was commander of the entire flotilla of submarines, including B-4, B-36 and B-130, and equal in rank to Captain Savitsky. According to author Edward Wilson, the reputation Arkhipov gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year's Soviet submarine K-19 incident also helped him prevail in the debate. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow. This action effectively averted the nuclear warfare which most likely would have ensued had the torpedo been fired. The submarine's batteries had run very low and the air-conditioning had failed, so it was forced to surface amidst its U.S. pursuers and head home. Washington's message that practice depth charges were being used to signal the submarines to surface never reached B-59, and Moscow claims it has no record of receiving it either.
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