In 2000 a film was released called Thirteen Days, a dramatic retelling of the Cuban Missile crisis starring Bruce Greenwood as John F Kennedy and Kevin Costner as a White House assistant. The film shares its name with a book on the same topic by Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General, and its tagline was “you’ll never believe how close we came”.
In truth, putting aside the fiction for a moment the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the first time that the human race held both the power to wipe out all life and the mind to do it, a terrifying concept for all of us living in a post-nuclear world. Kevin Costner in the film believed that “good men” would prevent such a catastrophe, and so far he has been proven right.
But chief among these “good men” is someone of whom most people have never heard. While the Cuban Missile Crisis was a disaster narrowly averted, in truth we came much closer to the brink than most realize, and all of humanity was ultimately saved by the actions of one man: Vasily Arkhipov.
The Special Weapon
Vasily Arkhipov was a career Soviet navy officer, well respected for his involvement in managing a coolant leak on Russian submarine K-19 in 1961, the year before the crisis. Born into a peasant family near Moscow, he had earned his position and reputation and now commanded a flotilla of three Foxtrot-class submarines.
The Foxtrot-class was not a nuclear submarine, relying instead on diesel-electric generators. However each submarine carried what the Russians called a “special weapon”: a nuclear warhead mounted on a torpedo.
These battlefield weapons were carried by the three submarines as they shadowed cargo ships headed from the Soviet Union to Cuba. The submarines were submerged and remained out of sight of the Americans, but they were not undetected.
The developing US policy for Cuba was one of containment and blockade, and US surface vessels were tasked with preventing the cargo ships from reaching Cuba. On 27 October 1962 the USS Randolph, a US Essex-class aircraft carrier, and its support fleet of destroyers located Soviet submarine B-59, the boat carrying Arkhipov.
The US approach was to force the submarine to the surface, thereby rendering it too vulnerable to threaten the US ships. Therefore depth charges were dropped in the vicinity of the submarine in an attempt to damage or disable her.
Arkhipov may have been in overall charge of the Soviet submarine flotilla, but he was not the captain of B-59. The boat’s captain Valentin Savitsky, alarmed by the US attack and unable to break his communications blackout with Moscow, believed a war had started and elected to fire his special weapon.
Ordinarily Soviet submarines operated with a high degree of autonomy, and authorization to launch the nuclear torpedo only required approval from the boat’s captain and its political officer. Both were in agreement to launch, but because B-59 carried Arkhipov, the Commodore of the flotilla, his authorization was required also.
Technically Arkhipov was outranked on B-59 by the Savitsky, holding the rank of executive officer and second-in-command of the boat. Nevertheless his authorization was required, but when it came to the crunch, he said no.
Out of respect for Arkhipov’s reputation, despite Captain Savitsky’s seniority he and the political officer were persuaded to not fire the weapon, and instead surface and await further instructions from Moscow. Had the missile been launched, nuclear war would have been almost certain.
In the film Thirteen Days, the story is told exclusively from the American side. Tense messages are relaying between Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at the Pentagon and the Kennedys at the White House, and when the Soviet cargo ships are forced to turn around this is presented as a victory for American brinksmanship, accompanied with much relieved handshaking and backslapping.
To tell the story in this way is to miss the wider picture. But for the courage and humanity of Vasily Arkhipov, the world would have been plunged into nuclear disaster, our planet ruined for our civilization and any that may come after.
You’ll never believe how close we came.
Top Image: Soviet submarine B-59 after surfacing, shadowed by a US Navy helicopter. Source: US Navy / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green
Krulwich, R, 2016. You (and Almost Everyone You Know) Owe Your Life to This Man. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/you-and-almost-everyone-you-know-owe-your-life-to-this-man
Walsh, B, 2022. 60 years ago today, this man stopped the Cuban missile crisis from going nuclear. Available at: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2022/10/27/23426482/cuban-missile-crisis-basilica-arkhipov-nuclear-war
Davis, N, 2017. Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war honoured with prize. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/oct/27/vasili-arkhipov-soviet-submarine-captain-who-averted-nuclear-war-awarded-future-of-life-prize