October 27, 1962 (a Saturday)

Vasili Arkhipov, the Russian who saved the world from nuclear war in 1961.

On this date, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, a Soviet naval officer, prevented the launch of a nuclear torpedo and almost certainly a nuclear war. His story is to this day unknown to the wider public, although in 2002 Thomas Blanton (then director of the National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University) expressed it when he remarked that “a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”

Since President John F. Kennedy’s October 22 address warning the Soviet Union to cease its reckless program to put nuclear weapons in Cuba and announcing a naval “quarantine” against additional weapons shipments into Cuba, the world had held its breath waiting to see whether the two superpowers would come to blows. U.S. armed forces were ordered to DEFCON 3 on October 22 and the Strategic Air Command went to DEFCON 2 (one step away from nuclear attack) on October 23. On October 24, millions waited to see whether Soviet ships bound for Cuba carrying additional missiles would try to break the U.S. naval blockade around the island.

DEFCONs are stages of U.S. military alert.

U.S. destroyers under orders to enforce a naval quarantine off Cuba did not know that the submarines the Soviets had sent to protect their ships were carrying nuclear weapons. A group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph trapped the nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba and started dropping practice depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. Washington’s message that practice depth charges were being used to signal the submarines to surface had never reached B-59, and Moscow claimed they had no record of receiving it either. (The incident occurred prior to establishment of the so-called Hot Line between the two superpowers.) The B-59 was also too deep to spy on U.S. Navy radio traffic, so those on board could not know if war had broken out.

28 October 1962: The U.S. Navy shadows the second Soviet F-class submarine to surface, after repeated rounds of signaling depth charges on 27 October.

The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, believing that a war might already have started, wanted to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo, whose 15 kiloton explosive-yield approximated the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in August 1945. Around 5 p.m., he gave the order to prepare to fire. “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our navy,” a Soviet intelligence report quotes the Soviet captain as saying.

Although three officers on board the submarine — Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the second-in-command Arkhipov — were authorized to launch the torpedo, they had to agree unanimously in favor of doing so. An argument broke out among the three, in which only Arkhipov was against the launch, eventually persuading Savitsky to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow. The nuclear warfare which presumably would have ensued was thus averted. Although Arkhipov was only second-in-command of submarine B-59, he was actually Commander of the flotilla of submarines including B-4, B-36, and B-130 and of equal rank to Captain Savitsky.

“There are lessons to be learned,” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a former Kennedy aide and a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, has said. “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.

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