The Commie Sub Commander Who Saved the World

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov and Wife

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov and Wife

Not since the fall of Communism has America become so confrontational with Russia. Perhaps now is the right time to remind you that a Soviet submarine officer prevented the outbreak of a devastating nuclear World War III.

It was October 1962. The United States military had detected that Soviet nuclear missiles had been set up in Cuba: Kennedy was determined to face down Nikita Khruschchev in the world’s most dangerous nuclear confrontation to date. According to Wikipedia:

[A] group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping practice signaling depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine’s crew had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its U.S. Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic. Those on board did not know whether war had broken out or not. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decided that a war might already have started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.

Unlike the other subs in the flotilla, three officers on board the B-59 had to agree unanimously to authorize a nuclear launch: Captain Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the second-in-command Arkhipov. Typically, Russian submarines armed with the “Special Weapon” only required the captain to get authorization from the political officer to launch a nuclear torpedo. However, due to Arkhipov’s position as flotilla commander, the B-59s captain also was required to gain Arkhipov’s approval. An argument broke out, with only Arkhipov against the launch.

Fortunately, it was Arkhipov’s voice that prevailed. He persuaded Savitsky to surface and to await further orders from Moscow. Had the nuclear torpedo been fired, war would have ensued within minutes.  According to U.S. Secretary of Defense under Kennedy, Robert McNamara, we came very close to nuclear war, closer than we knew at the time.

The important thing to remember here, I think, is that neither side had an exclusive claim on truth or morality: The “enemy,” a Communist sub commander, saved the world. If you’re interested, here is an interesting account on the subject in The Guardian.

Vladimir Putin is, to some, evil incarnated—but is Donald J. Trump any better? Sometimes there’s little to choose between a KGB officer and a New York real estate developer.