Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov – The Man Who saved The World

lawzmag.com27th October, 1962 was indisputably the most dangerous and yet the most fortuitous day in the annals of human history! It was on that day that Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, a Soviet Navy officer, single-handedly averted World War III during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the United States and the Soviet Union stood perilously on the brink of an all out nuclear war and came to be popularly hailed in all corners of the globe as ‘The man who saved the world’. A menacing flotilla of four Soviet Foxtrot class diesel-powered nuclear-armed submarines, comprising its flagship B-59 and three sister ships B-4, B-36 and B-130, which had been despatched from the Soviet naval base in the Arctic port of Murmansk on 1st October,1962 to the Mariel Bay in Cuba (virtually the epicentre of the rapidly escalating tension and turbulence that had gripped the entire world!), stealthily sneaked into international waters. Having got wind of the flotilla, a U.S. Navy task force comprising the formidable aircraft carrier USS Randolph and eleven attack destroyers, in the course of a studied ‘hunting by exhaustion’ reconnaissance mission, located the B-59 submarine on the edge of the Caribbean Sea just 90 miles south of the Florida coast near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the destroyer USS Beale started dropping ‘practice’ signalling depth charges intended to force the submarine to rise to the surface so that it could be identified and searched to ensure that it carried no nuclear missiles or missile parts. USS Beale was joined by other destroyers who piled in to unnerve the B-59 with more depth charges. Gary Slaughter, a signalman with the USS Cony, confessed later, ‘We knew they were probably having trouble breathing. It was hot as hell in there, they were miserable. They were cramped together and they had been under great stress for a long time. Basically what we were trying to do was apply passive torture.’ On 24th October,1962, the U.S. State Department had revealed the U.S. Navy signalling system by sending a “Submarine Surfacing and Identification Procedures” document to the Soviet Foreign Ministry. But the submarine crew had had no contact whatsoever with Moscow for a number of days. They had earlier been picking up American radio broadcasts but once the submarine began to conceal itself from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep under the sea to monitor any radio signals. The celebrated Russian journalist Alexander Mozgovoi in his book ‘Cuban Samba of the Foxtrot Quartet’ has recorded the vivid account of Vadim Pavlovich Orlov, a communications intelligence officer aboard the B-59, of the depth charges exploding right next to the hull of the submarine, ‘The Americans encircled us and began dropping grenades that were exploding right next to us. It felt like sitting in a metal barrel with someone hitting it with a sledgehammer. The crew was in shock.’  The captain of the B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, had no means of ascertaining that the depth charges were non-lethal ‘practice’ grenades intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface.  He unilaterally drew the ominous inference that a war might be already afoot and the fate of the submarine was sealed. After an especially strong explosion shook the submarine, Savitsky became furious and wanted to immediately launch the submarine’s ten kiloton T-5 torpedo  tipped by a RDS-9 nuclear warhead (roughly having the lethal capability of the atomic bomb that had been dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima on 6th August,1945!) against the USS Randolf. Savitsky ordered his weapons officer to arm the torpedo and screamed, ‘Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here! We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not disgrace our Navy!’ He, however, had to follow the protocol of seeking the concurrence of Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, the political officer, and Arkhipov, who was the commander of the entire flotilla and was travelling aboard the B-59. Maslennikov towed Savitsky’s line! Typically, Russian submarines armed with the ‘Special Weapon’ only required the captain to get authorization from the political officer to launch a nuclear torpedo. However, due to Arkhipov’s unique position as the commander, Savitsky was obliged to get Arkhipov’s green signal as he had the final say in the matter. Arkhipov expressed his staunch opposition to the proposed launch and summarily vetoed it by asserting in no uncertain terms that total war could not be unleashed without complete information based on credible intelligence inputs. He insisted that the submarine must not fire the torpedo and surrender instead. Ryurik Ketov, the captain of the B-4, later remarked, ‘Vasili Arkhipov was a submariner and a close friend of mine. He was a family friend. He stood out for being cool-headed. He was in control.’ Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface and await final orders from Moscow. The crew of the submarine had been totally exhausted. Conditions in the submarine had deteriorated steadily. For a week, the crew had been forced to remain underwater in sweltering heat, rationed to just one glass of water a day. The submarine’s oxygen supply was dwindling, its batteries were running very low and its air-conditioning system was stuttering. Savitsky was perforce constrained to order the submarine to surface. This effectively averted the nightmare of a nuclear holocaust which would have inevitably ensued had the torpedo been fired by the submarine from under the sea. For the Russian Navy, surfacing was a humiliating act, but Arkhipov’s timely veto undoubtedly saved the world from a nuclear Armageddon.  The American vessels surrounded the submarine, blissfully unaware that the submarine was armed with a nuclear torpedo. By this time, the hotheads on the American side were asked to exercise maximum restraint and the White House directed Admiral George Whelan Anderson, the Chief of  Naval Operations (who was in charge of the American blockade of Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis),not to move a finger without its permission. To indicate that their intentions were friendly, the U.S. Navy even induced a jazz band to play some vibrant melodies atop the deck of one of their ships to keep the Russians in good humour. The Americans were convinced that the submarine was afflicted by some kind of inexplicable malfunctioning, but Savitsky spurned all offers of assistance. He ordered the submarine to turn around and head back to it’s home base. The submarine was tailed by U.S. Navy ships until it submerged on 29th October,1962. The three other submarines also received orders from Moscow to forthwith abort their mission. The Cuban Missile Crisis was officially over. Upon its return back to Murmansk, the B-59 and its crew members were met with trepidation and accorded an ignominious welcome.  Professor Thomas Blanton, Director of the Washington based National Security Archive, a U.S. non-governmental organization, told the reputed American monthly magazine Sun, ‘What heroism, what duty, they fulfilled to go halfway across the world and come back, and survive.’ Washington’s message that practice depth charges were being used to signal the submarine to surface never reached B-59 and Moscow claimed that it had no record of receiving it either. Whilst discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 2002, Robert Strange McNamara, who was the U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, stated, ‘We came very close’ to nuclear war, ‘closer than we knew at the time.

Arkhipov’s truly stellar role in saving the world was kept under the wraps until well after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a conference held in Havana, Cuba, in 2002, Professor Blanton said, ‘The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.’ In 2012, the venerable British spy fiction writer Edward Wilson in his widely acclaimed novel ‘The Midnight Swimmer’ wrote,‘The decision not to start world war three was not taken in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the sweltering control room of a submarine.’ The launch of the B-59’s nuclear torpedo entailed the unequivocal consent of all three senior officers aboard. Arkhipov was singular in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov’s reputation was the key factor in the control room debate. The previous year, Arkhipov had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to salvage a submarine with an overheated reactor. That radiation effect eventually contributed to his death. If the B-59’s torpedo had miniaturized the USS Randolf to a ball of vapourized fire followed by a mushroom cloud, the nuclear clouds would have quickly spread from the sea to the land. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have blasted out innumerable ‘economic targets’, a euphemism for civilian populations. More than half the population in the United Kingdom would have been annihilated. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s Single Integrated Operational Plan (‘SIOP’), a doomsday framework that reverberated the wanton Götterdämmerung (‘Twilight of the Gods’) of the 1964 comedy film Dr. Strangelove (that  satirized the Cold War fears of a nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and was inspired by Richard Wagner’s powerful opera!), would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-combatant states like Albania and China. If the Soviets had delivered the first nuclear strike at the USS Randolph, the American temptation to retaliate would have been too overpowering to resist and the Soviet Union would have been reduced to ashes. The main reason that impelled the Soviet Premier Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev to send missiles to Cuba was his alarming realization that the Soviet Union lacked a determinative long range ICBM deterrent against a possible American attack. What would have happened to the United States itself is uncertain. It, however, seems likely that a few atomic warheads would have certainly landed on American soil and would have wrecked enormous havoc, death and destruction.

Arkhipov continued in the Soviet Navy, commanding submarines and later submarine squadrons. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1975 and became head of the famed Kirov Naval Academy. He was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1981 and retired from service in the mid 1980s.He subsequently settled in Kupavna in the Moscow region where he died on 19th August,1998 at the age of 72 of radiation poisoning.

Fifty four years on, what prophylactic lessons can we draw from the Cuban Missile Crisis? One is that governments lose their control in a crisis. McNamara’s impending fear was the unauthorized launch of a nuclear weapon as he had ordered that PALs (‘Permissive Action Links’) be fitted to all ICBMs. But when the PALs were installed, the U.S. Strategic Air Command had all the codes set to ‘00000000’ so that the links would not impede a speedy launch in a crisis. Nuclear weapons security will always be a human issue at all conceivable levels. Even the ever vigilant American President James Earl ‘Jimmy’ Carter once left nuclear launch codes in his lounge suit when it was sent for dry cleaning!

The cold war has ended, but the thermo-nuclear infrastructures of the United States, Russia and Communist China are very much in place. And the spectre of a nuclear war between superpowers hangs heavily over our heads. So long as the pages of history portray ‘more than a register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind’, unsung heroes like Arkhipov will shine like blazing beacons and inspire generations of peacemakers to come.  To his wife Olga Arkhipova, he will always remain a true exemplar. Here, I am drawn irresistibly to the glowing tribute she paid to Arkhipov’s fragrant memory in the 2012 Channel 5 television documentary film ‘The Man Who Stopped WW3: Revealed/The Man Who Saved the World, ‘He knew that it was madness to fire the nuclear torpedo…the person who prevented a nuclear war was the Russian submariner Vasili Arkhipov. I was proud and I am proud of my husband, always.


Advocate, Supreme Court of India

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