A Man You’ve Never Heard of Saved Your Life

 Vasili Arkhipov
Covert mission: In a game of high stakes cat and mouse it wasn't long before the Russian's were spotted

On October 27, 1962, a man you’ve never heard of saved your life …

It was at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were on hair trigger alert for World War Three.

And an order to launch a nuclear missile against Americans was actually given by the commander and political officer of a Soviet nuclear submarine.

One man stopped global nuclear war.

Edward Wilson explains in the Guardian:

An American spy plane had been shot down over Cuba while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace. As these dramas ratcheted tensions beyond breaking point, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear weapon.

The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that the depth charges were non-lethal “practice” rounds intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface. The Beale was joined by other US destroyers who piled in to pummel the submerged B-59 with more explosives. The exhausted Savitsky assumed that his submarine was doomed and that world war three had broken out. He ordered the B-59’s ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.

If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporised the Randolf, the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to 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 wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations – more than half the UK population would have died. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s SIOP, Single Integrated Operational Plan – a doomsday scenario that echoed Dr Strangelove‘s orgiastic Götterdämmerung – would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-belligerent states such as Albania and China.

***

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 required the consent of all three senior officers aboard. Arkhipov was alone in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov’s reputation was a key factor in the control room debate. The previous year the young officer had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to save a submarine with an overheating reactor. That radiation dose eventually contributed to his death in 1998.

PBS’ The Man Who Saved the World adds details:

Just how close the world came to complete destruction during those dark October days has only recently come to light.

***

“I now believe that it could have meant the end of humanity.”

***

“I saw Defence Secretary McNamara, take Dean Rusk to the side and said, ‘The sun is setting, it could be the last sunset we will ever see.’ And that’s when I got scared.”

***

“There is a specific signal that we have, and that is 3 explosions, grenade explosions, which means you have to surface.

I don’t know what the Americans were doing, but it wasn’t three…”

The American signal to surface is different from the Russians …

***

[The commander and political officer of the Russian nuclear sub both command the launch of a nuclear weapon against the Americans.  But Arkhipov said:]

“We don’t know that this is an attack – for all we know they are trying to surface us…”

The future of the world now rests on Vasili Arkhipov’s shoulders…

***

[Gary Slaughter, signalman aboard the American destroyer USS Cony:] “God only bless the man because err, what would have happened after that?  We would have been a nuclear war with Soviet Russia, and there would maybe perhaps not be a world.”

We only avoided a nuclear war because one man – Arkhipov – put down his foot and said no.

Postscript:  We are also grateful to American military heroes – many of them anonymous – who have blown the whistle on things which could also have led to nuclear war.

Unfortunately, Michel Chossudovsky documents In Towards a World War III Scenario that the U.S. is currently so enamored with nuclear weapons that it has authorized low-level field commanders to use them in the heat of battle in their sole discretion … without any approval from civilian leaders.

Given that top Russians, Americans and Poles say that we’re once again drifting towards a nuclear confrontation with Russia, cool-headed, ethical commanders may be our best chance of preventing catastrophe.

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  • Tom Welsh

    Yeah. Cool-headed, ethical commanders who are *kept well away from Russian armed forces*.

    One guy did the right thing once. We shouldn’t count on that happening again – let alone over and over. Whoever shot Pat Tillman might be on the button next time…

  • ClubToTheHead

    Hitler in his bunker, as the Soviet army approached, commanded that the German people and Paris be destroyed as the war’s end drew near. Without the the Third Reich life, he thought, would not be worth living so suicide was, for many in the bunker, the only honorable option. (See Samson Option.)

    The Soviet Union, in its collapse, did not see the destruction of life on earth as a necessary consequence to its decline from power.

    Great Britain, in its decline from being the dominant empire, did not throw a suicide tantrum as revenge.

    Will the USA, in its decline, attempt a mass suicide tantrum, as did the mad Hitler? or will it accept life as still worth living, as the relatively sane Soviet Union did?

    Israel contemplates the Samson Option:

    The Samson Option is the name that some military analysts have given to Israel’s deterrence strategy of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons as a “last resort” if military attacks threaten its existence.

  • Dylan

    This hero of the people should have a statue as high as the empire state building

  • Bev

    I was looking for another incident during the 1980s when another Russian waited and saved the world, but I came across a NOVA show which indicates there were four additional close calls. We are all living on borrowed time given to us by wonderful people.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/military/nuclear-false-alarms.html

    False Alarms in the Nuclear Age
    By Dr. Geoffrey Forden
    Posted 11.06.01
    NOVA

    Since the late 1970s, Russian and American missileers have each come close twice to launching nuclear missiles in response to a perceived attack under way from the other side. Here, MIT’s Geoffrey Forden supplies the details of those harrowing events.

    Beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis

    The Cuban missile crisis is the best-known example of narrowly avoiding nuclear war. However, there are at least four other less well-known incidents in which the superpowers geared up for nuclear annihilation. Those incidents differed from the Cuban missile crisis in a significant way: They occurred when either the U.S. or Soviet or Russian leaders had to respond to false alarms from nuclear warning systems that malfunctioned or misinterpreted benign events.

    As the following brief history of those four incidents makes clear, space-based early-warning systems played a major role in avoiding nuclear war. During the 1980s, a few specialized articles in the media hinted at the presence of those systems. However, it was only during the Gulf War that the American public truly became aware of U.S. capability to detect missile launches using space-based assets. During that crisis, U.S. Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, first orbited in 1970, detected the launch of every Iraqi Scud missile. The satellites made the detections from their orbits by “seeing” the infrared light that the missiles’ motors gave off during powered flight. The warning of launches was transmitted to Patriot air defense missile batteries in Israel and Saudi Arabia to support attempts to shoot down the incoming warheads.

    The association with the fighting of conventional war has obscured the more important strategic role those systems have played: reassuring leaders of the United States and Russia that they were not under nuclear attack. A review of the four nuclear crises will better highlight that role.

    more

  • I had read elsewhere that Pakistani commanders now have sole discretion in using tactical nukes against India. I had no idea that this was true for the US! Holy crap!