In March of 2016 The National Geographic Magazine published an article “You (and Almost Everyone You Know) Owe Your Life to This Man” by Robert Krulwich. It is a sobering and deeply disturbing account of how the actions of one man prevented the launch of a nuclear weapon by the Russians against the U.S. Navy.
The following is a recap of that story. A story that was unknown for more that 50 years.
It was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis and a Russian submarine was lying deep in the Caribbean waters off the coast of Cuba. Their submarine had been targeted by depth charges launched by U.S. naval vessels. The conditions on board the ship, which was designed for patrolling Artic waters was nearly unbearable. The captain of the submarine, one Valentin Sativsky, was exhausted, frightened, and nervous.
The submarine had been out of contact with their commanders in the Soviet Union for days. They had no idea if war had been started or if they were under direct attack. What made the situation especially critical was that the submarine was armed with a nuclear weapon on one of its torpedoes. They had originally been deployed to Cuba, then inexplicably ordered to remain in the Caribbean.
Following a significantly large blast, the captain shouted “Maybe the war has already started …. We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink all them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.”
The only reason he didn’t launch that torpedo is the direct result of a man who remained cool-headed and restrained throughout the ordeal. His name was Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. People should remember that name.
At age 34, Arkhipov was Captain Stavitsky’s equal, with responsibility for the three Russian subs on this mission to Cuba. While the exact details about what happened on that sub in October remain unknown, the consensus is that Stavisky had the authority to launch the weapon if, and only if, all three senior officers on board agreed. The other senior officer sided with the captain, but Arkhipov refused.
He argued that the ship was not in danger, that the depth charges, missing the ship to the left and the right. were not an attack but a standard military signal to surface and identify yourself. Unable to contact the Kremlin for orders, the captain eventually deferred to Arkhipov’s calm reason and level-headed coolness.
“Had Savitsky launched his torpedo, had he vaporized a U.S. destroyer or aircraft carrier, the U.S. would probably have responded with nuclear-depth charges, thus starting a chain of inadvertent developments which could have led to catastrophic consequences.”
So instead of starting what would probably have been a nuclear war between Russia and the United States, and most likely the obliteration of much of the planet as we know it, Captain Savitsky instead followed Arkhipov’s advice and surfaced his submarine.
After surfacing, the submarine was met by a U.S. destroyer. “The Americans didn’t board. There were no inspections, so the U.S. Navy had no idea there were nuclear torpedos on those subs – and wouldn’t know for around 50 years……Instead, the Russians turned away and went back north to Russia.”
As tensions rise daily between the United States and North Korea, comparisons to the Cuban Missile crisis are unavoidable. Is there another Arkhipov in the U.S. or North Korean military? Will it once again come down to a rational decision made by one man in irrational circumstances? We simply cannot depend upon a second miracle happening again.
“Looking back, it all came down to Archipov. Everyone agrees that he’s the guy who stopped the captain. He’s the one who stood in the way.”