The world came closer to nuclear Armageddon during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis than at any other point during the Cold War – but just how close wasn’t fully recognized until 40 years after the crisis.
That’s when the U.S. National Security Archive went public with details surrounding an incident during the standoff in which Soviet submarines operating in the Atlantic came precariously close to launching a spread of nuclear tipped torpedoes on American surface vessels.
Many agree that in the midst of the crisis, such an act of aggression (particularly one involving atomic weapons) would have almost certainly triggered a nuclear exchange between the two opposing superpowers.
Amazingly, the attack was prevented by a cool-headed Soviet naval officer by the name of Vasili Arkhipov.
In fact, according to a 2002 statement by the director of the National Security Archive, Arkhipov “saved the world.” It was an assessment that was backed up by former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara at conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The incident in question took place on Oct. 27. That’s when the U.S. Navy carrier Randall and more than 10 escort destroyers were tracking a formation of four Russian subs in international waters that were making for the exclusion zone Washington had imposed on Cuba.
Having isolated the Foxtrot-class diesel electric subs, the American destroyers swarmed the submerged contacts and began dropping small grenade-sized practice depth charges in an attempt to force their quarry it to the surface. Three of the Soviet subs capitulated, but one sub known as the B-39 remained beneath the waves.
The captain of the lone sub, Valentin Savitsky, believed that the noisy simulated weapons were real depth charges. Having been out of radio contact with the Soviet Union for several days, the commander had not unreasonably concluded that the apparent attack was proof that a war had already broken out. Accordingly, he ordered his crew to hit back with nuclear-tipped torpedoes. In keeping with Soviet launch protocols, Savitsky required the authorization of the two other ranking officers aboard to fire the salvo. One of the men confirmed the launch order, but Arkhipov, the B-39’s 36-year-old first officer refused. A heated dispute broke out between the Russian captain and his second-in-command. Arkhipov argued against the launch pointing out that they should first confirm that a state of war actually existed before releasing nuclear weapons. The defiant officer, who enjoyed a reputation for bravery after putting down a mutiny aboard the stricken Soviet sub K-19 a year earlier, eventually convinced the captain to not only stay the attack, but even to risk destruction by surfacing to establish radio contact.
The B-39 emerged from the waves amid its pursuers. After resuming communications with the Soviet Union, the sub’s skipper put about and steamed for home.
Despite receiving what the Daily Telegraph described as a “hero’s welcome”, Arkhipov was soon forgotten. He retired from the Soviet navy as a vice admiral in the 1980s and died in relative obscurity in 1998.
While Vasili Arkhipov received little recognition for saving the world, another Soviet military commander was widely celebrated for doing much the same thing.
In 1983, a Russian air defence officer named Stanislav Petrov watched his computer display as it showed what looked like five American missiles closing in on Russia. Rather than reporting to his superiors that the enemy was launching a nuclear strike, Petrov gambled that the attack was really a glitch and instead informed Moscow only that his equipment was malfunctioning. The 44-year-old lieutenant colonel reported later that he imagined a real surprise nuclear strike would have involved hundreds or thousands of missiles, not five.
Although, Petrov received no formal recognition from Moscow for his cool headedness, when details of the incident emerged years later, he was showered with praise. In 2004, the American-based Association of World Citizens awarded Petrov a $1000 prize for his contributions to mankind. Two years later, he was invited to appear before United Nations and in 2012 received the German Media Award. Earlier this year, Petrov was granted the $32,000 Dresden Prize for averting World War Three.
Despite all the attention, the 74-year-old retiree claims he’s no hero. “I was simply doing my job,” he said in a 2006 document