Who’s Your Favourite Soviet Naval Officer?

Only one good answer to this question. Vasili Arkhipov. Here he is.


Doesn’t he look level-headed? Da, he does.

On October 27, 1962, nuclear tensions were running pretty high — height of the Cuban missile crisis. Vasili Arkhipov was the second-in-command on the Soviet submarine B-59, which was, at the time, hanging out in international waters near Cuba. The B-59 hadn’t heard from Moscow in a few days, and it had dropped out of range of radio signals, so the crew didn’t really know what was what with the world.

When American ships spotted the B-59 in the Caribbean, they started dropping practice depth charges on it. This wasn’t meant to be a deadly assault, just an attempt to get the Soviet sub to surface and identify itself. But the crew aboard the B-59 didn’t know that these were just warning shots. All they knew was that they were being attacked. Captain Valentin Savitsky thought that Yikes, this was it! World War III had started! Like any good officer comfortable enough with the idea of mutually-assured destruction, he decided to launch a nuclear torpedo. Here’s a picture of the sub.


Now apparently, to launch a nuclear torpedo from a Soviet submarine, you need the unanimous consent of three officers: the captain; the second-in-command; and the political officer. Arkhipov was the only dissenting voice among the three. An argument took place, but our champion Arkhipov finally persuaded the other two not to launch the torpedo that would have triggered a nuclear war and maybe ended the world.

I like to imagine that argument. How long did it take Arkhipov to persuade them? And what were the pressure points? In this Guardian article, Edward Wilson argues that it was Arkhipov’s reputation for courage and competence — earned a year earlier when he exposed himself to insane levels of radiation while trying to save a submarine — that vested in him a particular authority. But would a man’s reputation, however impressive, really be enough to change your mind about whether or not to launch a nuclear torpedo? Who knows.

This story is much like the story of Dr. Strangelove. But less hilarious. Which is too bad. But with a happier ending! Which is nice. I saw Dr. Strangelove on a plane about a year ago. It’s still really really funny.



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