Cold War was an intense part of modern history. Lasting almost 50 years, this cold brew changed the world and geopolitical currents. Numerous “proxy” wars that came as a result of tension between the US and Soviet Union significantly affected current state of the affairs. But there were moments during that period that could’ve made a more significant change. Moments like threat of nuclear outburst for example. If that happened, a good number of us probably wouldn’t be here now and our environment would look much, much different. Luckily, there were good people around to prevent that from happening.
Almost 56 years ago, on October the 27th 1962, Soviet submarine B-59 was roaming the seas near Cuba. It was spotted by the US forces and despite it being in international waters, US began to drop depth charges – explosives that are used for forcing a submarine to come to the surface to be identified. At that time, crew of the Soviet submarine was already in the deep for quite some time. Their orders included secrecy, so they didn’t reach the surface for some time. Radio communication was disabled, as they must’ve stayed invisible and silent.
The submarine’s batteries were running low, air-conditioning failed which caused the temperature in some sections to be over 50ºC [122ºF]. Levels of carbon dioxide were rising too. People were fainting from exhaustion and lack of oxygen. In the midst of the tension, US Forces started dropping depth charges. Cut off from communication with the outside world, crew didn’t know what was going on, so they assumed the worst. Nuclear war had already broken out and they were under attack.
Submarine was shaking from explosions and the crew started to panic. Valentin Savitsky, the captain, decided that they should launch a nuclear torpedo at the US Forces’ ships and sink them all. They will die, but won’t become a shame of the fleet, Savitsky thought. Conditions in the submarine didn’t allow much rational thinking, but luckily request for launching nuclear torpedos needed a confirmation from other two officers to happen.
Savitsky managed to persuade the political officer, Ivan Maslennikov to follow his idea. But the second-in-command, Vasili Arkhipov said no. Argument broke out, but Arkhipov didn’t change his opinion. He convinced the captain and political officer that Americans weren’t attacking them, explosions are just depth charges used for getting their attention and forcing them to surface. As the submarine surfaced amid the US Forces, crew realized that Arkhipov was right and later returned to Soviet Union.
Upon the crew’s return to homeland, many members were faced with disgrace. Their superiors were mad, oblivious of what those people went through and what they did for the world. Defense minister, Andrei Grechko was furious after he found out that the crew was found by the Americans, failing to follow the orders and keep the mission a secret.
After 40 years, in 2002, the story was finally uncovered for the public. Retired commander Vadim Orlov, who was a crew member of the B-59 submarine, held a press conference in which he revealed the story and how Vasili Arkhipov stopped the WWIII. Only then the Americans realized how close they were to a nuclear outburst four decades ago. Discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 2002 Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an advisor for the John F. Kennedy administration and a historian said: “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history”. As far as we know he’s probably right. If Vasili Arkhipov didn’t say no that fateful day, the world as we see it would be totally different. For the worse.
He was posthumously awarded the first “Future of Life Award” in 2017. The award recognizes exceptional actions of an individual performed to safeguard the future of entire humanity, despite personal risks and without obvious reward. Vasili Arkhipov did the right thing at the right time in spite of all stressful circumstances. His brave deed saved numerous lives and allowed many more to emerge.