Vasily Alexandrovich Arkhipov, (30 January 1926 – 19 August 1998) was a Soviet Navy officer credited with preventing a Soviet nuclear strike during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such an attack likely would have caused a major global thermonuclear response.
As flotilla commander and second-in-command of the diesel powered submarine B-59, Arkhipov refused to authorize the captain’s use of nuclear torpedoes against the United States Navy, a decision requiring the agreement of all three senior officers aboard.
In 2002, Thomas Blanton, who was then director of the US National Security Archive, said that Arkhipov “saved the world”.
Arkhipov was born into a peasant family in the town of Staraya Kupavna, near Moscow. He was educated in the Pacific Higher Naval School and participated in the Soviet–Japanese War in August 1945, serving aboard a minesweeper. He transferred to the Caspian Higher Naval School and graduated in 1947.
On 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered, nuclear-armed Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping 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 B-59 had to agree unanimously to authorize a nuclear launch: Captain Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the flotilla commodore (and executive officer of B059) 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, but due to Arkhipov’s position as flotilla commander, B-59’s captain also was required to gain Arkhipov’s approval. An argument broke out, with only Arkhipov against the launch.
Even though Arkhipov was second-in-command of the submarine B-59, he was in fact commander of the entire submarine flotilla, including B-4, B-36 and B-130, and equal in rank (Captain of the First Rank) to Captain Savitsky. According to author Edward Wilson, the reputation Arkhipov had gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year’s K-19 incident also helped him prevail. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface and await orders from Moscow. This effectively averted the general nuclear war which probably would have ensued if the nuclear weapon had been fired. The submarine’s batteries had run very low and the air-conditioning had failed, causing extreme heat and high levels of carbon dioxide inside the submarine, which was a situation not conducive to rationality. They were forced to surface amid the American pursuers and return to the Soviet Union as a result. More details