Last weekend we learned that a four megaton nuclear bomb nearly exploded over North Carolina back in 1961. That would have been terrible for many people, especially the ones that actually live in North Carolina, but it wouldn't have been the end of the world. A year later, the world almost did end.
Though he never quite earned any fame, Vasili Arkhipov can be thought of as the one man that stood between an atomic end to the world as we know it and humanity itself. His moment to shine came during what we now know as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and specifically on a day that came to be known as "Black Saturday." During the period when nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was most likely, Black Saturday was when the match was struck to light the conflagration that almost ended life on the planet.
A Crisis Begins
The Errol Morris documentary Fog of War gives possibly one of the most fascinating accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in case you don't want to spend an hour and a half examining the life of Robert S. McNamara, fascinating though it is, I'll try and recount a bit. The Crisis began on October 14, 1962, and lasted for 13 days. It began when the Soviet Union placed nuclear-tipped Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (or IRBMs) on the island of Cuba, just a little over 90 miles off the coast of Florida, in response to the US placing equivalent Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy. The Soviets then sent in IL-28 nuclear-capable bombers to Cuba as well, crated up on top of freighter decks, just as a nice little cherry on top for all the fatalists out there.
The US, of course, would have none of this and issued an ultimatum to the Soviet Union – remove the missiles, or else. President John F. Kennedy called it a "flagrant" defiance of the Charter of the UN:
The Joint Chiefs of the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps all agreed that a strike on Cuba was the only responsible course of action. Cuban leader Fidel Castro recommended to Soviet Premier Nikhita Khruschev that such an attack be responded to with the very same nuclear weapons that had so spooked America, resulting in nuclear annihilation for everybody.
Clearly it was a volatile situation.
Kennedy, in conjunction with McNamara, instead took a slightly different but still incredibly risky course of action. He would use the US Navy to blockade Cuba, in the hopes that Castro and Khruschev would get the message about the seriousness of the situation. Except he couldn't call it a "blockade," because that would be an act of war, so he called it a "quarantine" instead, and barred only what the US deemed "offensive" military materiel.
On October 27th, on the 12th day of the Crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States were both simultaneously close to defusing the immediate tensions, and closer to blows than they ever had been before. Somewhere around noon a U-2 spy plane making an overflight of Cuba to determine whether or not missile preparations were ongoing (and thus indicating Soviet intentions) was shot down. While this could have been dismissed as a Cuban air-to-air missile, the attack on the U-2 was clearly Soviet. The Cubans simply didn't possess a missile capable of shooting high enough to hit the spindly spy plane, so there was only one possible culprit. Later on it emerged that the missile was fired by one commander acting on his own, but it was easy to assume the worst.
Instead, Kennedy ignored the Soviet act of war as a one-time occurrence, and continued the negotiations.
A Hero Emerges
The whole time negotiations were ongoing, the blockade of Cuba continued. The Soviet Union kept sending ships to the Caribbean nation, but due to the transit time between Russian waters and Cuba, it took a while for the ships to get there. There hadn't been a real test yet of what would happen if the Soviet Navy actually tried to make it past the US "quarantine." Would it simply erupt into a tit-for-tat shotfest, or something worse?
The answer came on the Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 later on October 27th. The USS Beale was enforcing the watery fence around Cuba when it came upon the Communist boat. It proceeded to drop warning shots, in the form of practice depth charges, on B-59. The thing about depth charges and sonar technology of the time was that practice depth charges, which had the explosive force of somewhere around a hand grenade, didn't sound all that much different to someone listening than a real depth charge.
As B-59 was underwater, and thus out of radio range, the crew didn't know if war had started or not. Faced with a rapidly deteriorating amount of oxygen, the three officers onboard, Captain Valentin Savitsky, political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and Commander Vasili Arkhipov needed to unanimously agree on the most strategic course of action – loading, arming, and firing their single nuclear torpedo at the American fleet.
For those unaware of the insanity that entails the words "nuclear goddamn torpedo," it looks like this:
Use of the torpedo nuke would have meant a certain suicidal death for the crew of B-59 as well, but hey, if everyone's going to die, you might as well be the first to go, right?
That was actually the thinking of Savitsky and Maslennikov, who ordered the torpedo armed and loaded. Arkhipov was the only one who stood in their way.
And stood there he did. Arkhipov somehow coaxed down Savitsky from using the Torpedo of Doom and Hellfire (official name), and the sub, whose crew was in danger of suffocating from lack of oxygen, surfaced instead. If the torpedo had been used, society itself would have been eliminated.
Vasili Arkhipov, one single guy, prevented that.
So what happened to Arkhipov after that? No statues were made. No songs were sung. He was eventually promoted to Rear Admiral, and he was kinda sorta featured in that terrible movie K19: The Widowmaker starring Harrison Ford where Harrison Ford did not play Arkhipov because of an incident earlier in his career, but that's pretty much it.
But Vasili Arkhipov is a goddamn hero.