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You might not recognize the name Vasili Arkhipov, but it's more than likely that you owe him a debt of gratitude. Although his heroic actions only came to light relatively recently, it's now understood that Arkhipov's cool head helped to avert a potential global nuclear conflict.
In October 1962, Vasili Arkhipov was a 34-year-old senior officer aboard the Soviet B-59 sub, which was below the waves near Cuba. B-59 was secretly carrying a nuclear torpedo, which the crew was authorized to launch without special approval if the need arose.
On October 27, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the crew of B-59 became alarmed when U.S. Navy destroyers began dropping depth charges. This was not an attack – these were non-lethal signaling depth charges, intended to prompt the Soviet sub to surface and identify itself. However, without any radio communication, the crew of B-59 worried that war had already broken out, and Captain Valentin Savitsky began thinking seriously about launching their 10-kilotonne weapon. However, all three senior officers needed to agree before the launch could commence. Arkhipov, the chief of staff and second-in-command, refused, wanting to prevent a rapid escalation that would likely lead to a devastating nuclear exchange.
An unsung hero of the Cold War:
- To make matters worse, during the incident the Soviet sub was running low on batteries and the air conditioning had failed, so the crew members were dealing with high levels of carbon dioxide and extreme heat while making their decision.
- After surfacing, the B-59 sub was forced to return to the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the crew faced some criticism from their superiors for revealing themselves to the Americans.
- A quiet, humble man, Arkhipov never spoke much of the events of October 1962. Despite not getting recognition for his heroics, Arkhipov continued serving in the Soviet Navy, eventually becoming a commander of submarine squadrons. He was promoted to vice admiral in 1981 and retired a few years later.
- In October 2017, 55 years to the day after the B-59 torpedo incident, Arkhipov was posthumously awarded the "Future of Life" prize by the Future of Life Institute. The award recognizes people who act selflessly to safeguard the future of humanity, even in the face of terrible obstacles and with little prospect of reward.