Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"The Man Who Saved the World" in Cuban Missile Crisis 50 Years Ago

Salute to Soviet Submarine Commander Vasili Arkhipov.

If he hadn't said "no" to the launch of Hiroshima-size nuclear torpedoes against the US fleet above, the world would have been a vastly different place by now (if the world had survived, that is).

From The Sun (9/24/2012; emphasis is mine) writing about the documentary of this episode during the Cuban Missile crisis which has been unknown to most:

The man who saved the world
New documentary reveals untold story of the Soviet submariner who stopped World War III


FOR thirteen days in October 1962, the world held its breath as the USSR and the USA stood on the brink of nuclear war.

But a new documentary to be shown on Tuesday reveals that it was the actions of one man alone which saved the planet from utter destruction.

Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet submariner, died humiliated and outcast, despite single-handedly averting World War Three.

Now, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Channel 5 documentary ‘The Man Who Saved The World: Revealed’ will tell his fascinating story.

It begins in the midst of the 1960s Cold War paranoia, when relations between Washington and Moscow had all but collapsed.

In America, ordinary people were stockpiling rations and building bomb shelters in their gardens, while in schools children were learning how to shelter under their desks.

Then there was a revolution in Cuba, and the tension escalated. Now the USSR had a communist ally sitting right on America’s doorstep. Missiles stationed in Cuba had the ability to annihilate Washington and New York in ten minutes.

The only thing stopping sworn enemies the USA and USSR firing on each other was the policy of mutually assured destruction.

One torpedo fired by either side would get a mirror response from the other — triggering a shower of destruction that could wipe out human life.

Thomas Blanton, the Director of the National Security Archive in the US, explains: “Everybody had a nuke in their pocket. One spark could set it off.”

It was in this atmosphere of suspicion and fear that four submarines secretly set sail from Russia. Only a handful of the submariners on board knew that their ships carried nuclear weapons, each with the strength of the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.

The journey to Cuba was fraught with danger. Helicopters, aeroplanes and battleships were scouring the ocean for Russian subs.

The American hunt for the Soviet submarines became a game of cat and mouse — and it wasn’t long before the mouse was spotted.

Arkhipov’s sub, B59, was forced to make an emergency dive. As the submariners tried to stay hidden from their American hunters, conditions in the sub deteriorated.

For a week they stayed under water, in sweltering 60 degree heat, rationed to just one glass of water a day.

Above them, the US navy were “hunting by exhaustion” — trying to force the Soviet sub to come to the surface to recharge its batteries. They had no idea that on board the submarines were weapons capable of destroying the entire American fleet.

Gary Slaughter, a signalman on board the USS Cony battleship, said: “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. Frankly I don’t think we felt any sympathy for them at all. They were the enemy.”

The Americans decided to ratchet up the pressure, and dropped warning grenades into the sea. Inside the sub, the Soviet submariners thought they were under attack.

Valentin Savitsky, the captain of B59, was convinced the nuclear war had already started. He demanded that the submariners launch their torpedo — and save some of Russia’s pride.

In any normal circumstances, Savitsky’s orders would have been followed — and World War 3 would have been unleashed.

But Savitsky hadn’t counted on Arkhipov. As commander of the fleet, Arkhipov had the last veto. And although his men were against him, he insisted that they must not fire — and instead surrender to the Americans.

It was a humiliating move — but one that saved the world. The Soviet submariners were forced to return to their native Russia, where they were given the opposite of a hero’s welcome.

Historian Thomas Blanton explains: “What heroism, what duty, they fulfilled to go halfway across the world and come back, and survive. But in fact, one of the Russian admirals told the submariners; ‘It would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship.' Extraordinary.”

It took years before the story of what really happened on the B59 sub was discovered — and by then, Arkipov was dead.

But to his widow Olga, he was always a hero.

She said: “The man who prevented a nuclear war was a Russian submariner. His name was Vasili Arkhipov. I was proud and I am proud of my husband, always.”

PBS aired the documentary in the US on October 23, 2012. PBS's introduction to the documentary says there were three, instead of two, decision-makers on board B59 submarine:

Four Soviet submarines were sent on a mission known only to a handful of Communist party officials. Their destination was a mystery to be revealed once they were at sea. Under their orders, each submarine was to travel 7,000 miles from a top secret naval base in the Arctic Circle across the Atlantic to be permanently stationed in Mariel, Cuba where they would serve as the vanguard of a Soviet force a mere 90 miles from mainland America.

The commander of each submarine had permission to act without direct orders from Moscow if they believed they were under threat. Each of the four subs was carrying what the Soviets called a ‘special weapon’, a single nuclear torpedo, comparable in strength to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The torpedo could only be fired if the submarine captain and political officer were in agreement. Each had one half of a key which, when joined, unlocked the firing mechanism.

Ryurik Ketov, who is interviewed in The Man Who Saved the World, commanded one of the four subs. “I had a written order that I could release it,” says Ketov. “And if there was an order to fire the torpedo I would do it without a second thought. For the first time in life a commander of a submarine had a nuclear weapon and had the authority to fire the missile at his command.”

However, aboard the B-59, three men—not two—needed to be in agreement. As commander of the entire submarine fleet, Arkhipov had the power to veto firing the missile and was one of the only men who knew about the mission in advance.

Courage of one person to say "no" saved the world. A lesson for us all.


Maju said...

That's a quite moving story. He probably had orders not to fire unless he was commanded by Moscow anyhow but it's clear that it was the almost impossible rationality of some officers in both sides which kept the nuclear war from becoming reality. If just one had behaved in any way similar to "Dr. Strangelove" characters, we would not be here talking about this now.

Still the nuclear catastrophe has only been postponed once and again and can happen at any time as long as there are nuclear weapons or, as Fukushima and Chernobyl show, nuclear reactors at all.

Anonymous said...

While his direct superiors may have been unhappy with his performance Arkhipov actually didn't die humiliated or outcast. He continued in Soviet Navy service, commanding submarines and later submarine squadrons. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1975 and became head of the Kirov Naval Academy. He was promoted to vice admiral in 1981 and retired in the mid 1980s. You don't get a chest full of metals like this through humiliation. Of course he wasn't rewarded for his actions in 1962 because only a handful of people knew about the nuclear weapon under his control and they didn't want to advertise how close we came to Armageddon.

Anonymous said...

Could you imagine if that was a Japanese sub, they would have followed orders right to the end and blown the world up .... there is a lot to be said about disobeying rules that japan can learn from...

Anonymous said...

Nice story, strong man.
A lady of east-german extraction told me she once went home and found a note just saying 'the wall has fallen".
She went through her garden, and found no fallen wall.
She saw the news later...
The soviet rulers in DDR also avoided a blood bath. Probably knowing they already had spilled too much of it. Sensible step.
But what a madness, to take nuke weapons at USA's doors.
Would you think it's wise to hang around your enemy's house with a machine-gun ?

Anonymous said...

DDR (german) or GDR (english)

Anonymous said...

I'm sure this is just one of many close calls that played out during the early days of nuclear weapons. Everyone likes to think nuclear weapons were under the direct control of their respective world leaders but in the early days the only thing controlling their use were the field commands who possessed them. Early safeties were simple padlocks or armed guards and a strong will but even after more robust safeties were put in place most commands circumvented them by making the code all one letter or number. In addition the Navy resisted instituted them because they felt the security of their ships magazine was all the safety they needed. As far as the military is concerned a weapon that is too safe is useless. Not to mention some weapons systems had no safety system by design the SADM back pack bombs and the Davy Crockett recoiless rocket rounds came with a simple dial timer.

The military has been working to retire all the on-command detonation devices but who's to say they got them all? The recent Pinnacle-Empty Quiver incident in 2007 involving 6 nuclear weapons shows just how weak US nuclear weapons handling protocols are in the 21st century. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the activation code for these weapons was just a string of zeros?

Anonymous said...


"But what a madness, to take nuke weapons at USA's doors."

Everyone likes to forget Operation Head Start in 1958 eventually the USA was flying live nuclear alert forces along the entire USSR border ready to attack on a moments notice 24/7/365. This was in addition to the nuclear weapons the US put at the USSR's door in Turkey along with other European bases. The Russians were just trying to keep up.

Now the US government is trying to cover up the full extent of our cold war deployments even though it is common knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Well at least it's nice to know the US committed itself to consulting their allies "if time permitted"

"Consultation is Presidential Business"
Secret Understandings on the Use of Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1974

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 159.

"During talks with Atlee on nuclear weapons use, Truman assured him that he regarded the United Kingdom and the United States as "partners in this matter"; he would not use the bomb without consulting London unless the United States was under attack. When Atlee asked that the statement be put in writing, Truman refused declaring that "if a man's word wasn't any good it wasn't made any better by writing it down." While the British pushed for language on consultation to be included in the communiqué of Atlee's visit, Truman and top advisers also refused. They agreed only to language stating that the United States intended to keep the British government "informed" of any developments which might change the situation concerning the use of nuclear weapons."

"In 1962, the U.S. and NATO allies approved the "Athens Guidelines" that included a U.S. and a British commitment to consult with the alliance on nuclear use decisions anywhere in the world "if time permits."

Atomfritz said...

Thank you Ex-SKF and the commenters, I didn't know of that story yet. Now I feel I understand McNamara's famous comment better.

Indeed, in total, the the Soviets' behaviour can be called heroic and level-headed. Even more when considering the belligerent, constantly harassing imperialistic behavior of the USA.

Anonymous said...

This incident was the only time when WW3 was avoided by a Single Soviet military man:

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if the activation code for these weapons was just a string of zeros?"

They may have. Back in the late 1960s or 1970's Congress mandated that all Nukes be fitted with a security code to prevent unauthorize detection. The Brass complied with the law, but simply set the code to 0000. The reason was that the didn't want to fumble with the codes in case of a surprise attack.

Anonymous said...

When you look at the cold war with a non-bias eye it is hard to fault the USSR's negative attitude towards the West. As far as US history text books are concerned America did the world a favor and won WWII in both theaters due to our "can do attitude". Even though the Russians lost 20 million people and had done a majority of the fighting in Europe you'd never know it from American text books. Nope, US school children are taught the allies were our weak friends who needed help beating up the neighborhood bully. The Russians were seen as vodka soaked potato farmers who benefited from us helping the Europeans.

If the USSR had conducted surveillance flights with a U2 type aircraft over sensitive American interests we would have been at war before their first spy plane landed. There was a little know shooting war between the US and the Russians soon after the end of WWII. The US flew harassment missions to test Soviet response and more than one US aircraft was shot down during these encounters.

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