Arkhipov: The Man Who Saved the World
The B-59 off
the coast of Cuba carrying a nuclear torpedo. (U.S.
On October 27th, 1962 the world teetered on the
edge of a devastating nuclear war. Only the courageous action
of a single man, a Soviet submarine commander, acting against
the wishes of his shipmates, prevented the nightmare of nuclear
In the middle of the 20th century two great superpowers
arose out of the nightmare of WW II. The United States (US) in
the western hemisphere and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
(USSR) in the eastern hemisphere. Their ideologically opposed
economic systems, capitalism and communism, almost guaranteed
conflict. Unfortunately their recent acquisitions of nuclear weapons,
however, made the danger of such a clash deadly on a previously
unimaginable world wide scale.
Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
In 1962 much of the attention in the superpower
conflict, or "cold war," focused on the tiny island of Cuba, only
about 90 miles south of Florida. Cuba had long been within the
United States sphere of influence, but in 1959 rebel Fidel Castro
led a revolution against the authorities and soon established
a communist government friendly to the USSR. An aborted invasion
by Cuban exiles backed by the United States in 1961 caused further
distrust between Cuba and the west. In June of that year USSR
leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to secretly place nuclear tipped
missiles in Cuba to deter further harassment. In the beginning
of October 1962 a US U-2 spy plane spotted the missiles and the
sites that were being built to launch them. Under pressure from
the opposing political party in an upcoming election, US president
John Kennedy decided to establish a blockade of the island to
prevent future delivery of any more of the weapons. He also demanded
that Khrushchev remove what was already there. Tensions rose between
the two governments and the world feared a devastating nuclear
photo taken by an American reconnaissance plane showing
a Cuban missile site.
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was born on January
30, 1926, to a peasant family near Moscow. At the age of 16 in
1932 he joined the Soviet Navy and was assigned to the Pacific
Higher Naval School. After working in WWII on a minesweeper he
attended Caspian Higher Naval School and started serving in the
In 1961 Arkhipov was appointed the executive officer
of the Soviet's new nuclear, ballistic missile submarine K-19.
The K-19 had been rushed into service and on its maiden voyage
a breakdown in the nuclear reactor's cooling system threatened
to cause the mechanism to catastrophically "melt down." The crew
was forced build an emergency cooling system on the fly. It saved
the ship, but the entire crew was exposed to radiation and several
members involved in working within the reactor itself, died. This
led to unrest among the crew members and a potential mutiny on
board the boat. Arkhipov sided with the captain and together they
helped calm the crew. The K-19 was later towed back to its home
base and repaired. The incident was later dramatized in the movie
K-19: The Widowmaker where the part of Arkhipov was played
by actor Liam Neelson.
On October 1, 1962, just before the start of the
missile crisis, four diesel-electric submarines left their base
on the Kola Peninsula headed to Cuba to support the delivery of
nuclear weapons. Leading this flotilla was the B-59. Since the
B-59 was the flag ship it carried the flotilla commander: Vasili
Arkhipov. In charge of the B-59 itself was its Captain, Valentin
Savitsky. He was supported by political officer, Semonovich Maslennikov.
The Soviets decided to arm each submarine, in addition to conventional
torpedoes, with a single nuclear torpedo carrying a warhead of
10 kilotons - roughly the size of the bomb that had been dropped
on Hiroshima during World War II. Moscow had given little orders
in regards to the use of this "special weapon." Only
that the boat must be under attack and both the captain and the
political officer must agree on the launch.
After the flotilla of submarines left, the Americans
became suspicious that of what was going on in Cuba. An over flight
of the island by an U.S. recognizance aircraft on October 14th
showed activity on the island that suggested missile bases were
being built. Subsequent flights confirmed this and President Kennedy
realized he would need to take some action. Kennedy considered
using an airstrike to destroy the bases, or invading Cuba and
overthrowing Castro. He and his advisors, however, settled on
using the U.S. navy to blockade Cuba. On October 23rd Kennedy
signed the orders to quarantine the island. No more missiles would
be allowed to reach Castro's hands.
On October 27th the U.S. aircraft carrier USS
Randolph along with 11 destroyers detected the B-59 on its
way to Cuba, and following their orders, tried to enforce the
blockade. This meant forcing the submarine to the surface so it
could be identified and searched to assure that it carried no
nuclear missiles or missile parts. To this end the U.S. vessels
started dropping practice depth charges around the B-59 in order
to indicate they wished it to surface, not knowing the boat carried
a nuclear torpedo. The practice depth charges carried very little
explosive as they were meant not to damage friendly submarines
during training. The United States had communicated to Moscow
that they would be using the practice depth charges for signaling
purposes, but somehow this information never made it to the B-59.
On board the submarine a heated debate began on
what to do next. With the submarine underwater for many days and
unable to contact home they were unsure of what was happing on
the surface. The sound of depth charges suggested that the USSR
was now at war with the United States, however. ''We thought -
that's it - the end,''reported Vadim Orlov, a Soviet intelligence
With this thought in mind the Captain Savitsky wanted
to use the "special weapon" to sink the Randolph. ''We're
going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all.
We will not disgrace our navy," he declared. The ship's political
officer, Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, concurred. If this had been
any of the other submarines in the flotilla that would have been
it: The torpedo would have been launched and the aircraft carrier
would have disappeared in ball of fire followed by a mushroom
cloud. From there it seems almost inevitable that the U.S. response
would have involved nuclear weapons.
Despite earlier political rhetoric of a missile
gap and the Russians having many more Intercontinental Ballistic
Missiles (ICBMs) than the U.S., the actual count of missiles at
the time was very much in the favor of the Americans. With Soviet's
having made the first nuclear strike at the Randolph, the temptation
for the U.S. to strike back might have been too great to resist
and the Soviet Union would have been decimated, while only a few
atomic weapons would have made it onto American soil.
While the Soviet's only had a few missiles that
could reach the United States, it did have many that had the range
to reach American allies in Europe and it's likely that much of
the Britain, France and West Germany would have suffered a nuclear
holocaust. The estimated casualties of such an engagment ran into
the hundreds of millions.
The only thing that prevented this scenario from
being happening, however, was Arkhipov's presence on the B-59.
He alone felt that since the submarine had been out of contact
with Moscow for almost four weeks, they could not be sure of situation
on the surface and launching a nuclear weapon was too drastic
a measure. According to some sources the argument between the
three men was heated and punches were thrown. Eventually Arkhipov
calmed Savitsky down. His reputation for bravery during the K-19
incident was said to be key in prevailing in the argument. Ryutik
Kertov, commander of the B-4 stated, "Vasili Arkhipov was
a submariner and a close friend of mine... He stood out for being
cool-headed. He was in control."
ill-fated K-19 nuclear submarine on which Arkhipov served.
Unlike the nuclear powered K-19, the B-59 was powered
underwater by using batteries. After the prolonged engagement
with the Randolph, the batteries began to run low and the sub's
air conditioning started failing. The B-59 was eventually forced
to surface and it was only then that the crew learned that the
world was not at war and they had nearly initiated a global holocaust.
The sub, now having mechanical problems, headed
back to the Soviet Union. Despite his heroic actions, Arkhipov
was not viewed favorably by his superiors immediately after the
incident. Arkhipov, however, continued in Soviet Navy and was
eventually promoted to rear admiral in 1975 and vice admiral in
1981. He died in 1998 at the age of 72 from complications of his
exposure to radiation during the K-19 incident.
What exactly happened during the B-59 incident was
not known in the west until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
It was only during a conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis in
2002 that details of the story emerged. ''The lesson from this,"
said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive,
after he heard the story, "is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov
saved the world''.
Soviets Close To Using A-Bomb In 1962 Crisis,
Forum Is Told by Marion Lloyd, The Boston Globe, October
Thank You Vasili Arkhipov, The Man Who Stopped
Nuclear War by Edward Wilson, The Guardian, December
One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs,
Vintage, Random House, 2009.
Lee Krystek 2015. All Rights Reserved.