The Cuban Missile Crisis refers to a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) between October 16 to 28, 1962 relating to American ballistic missile deployment in Italy and Turkey with consequential Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba. The confrontation is often considered then nearest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear “hot” war.
In response to the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961 in which a failed military invasion of Cuba was undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that sponsored the paramilitary group Brigade 2506 of Cuban exiles to in an attempt to overthrow the Cuban government headed by Fidel Castro, and the presence of American Jupiter ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to Cuba’s request to place nuclear armed missiles on the island to deter any future invasion. An arrangement was reached during a secret meeting between Khrushchev and Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro in July 1962, and construction of a multiple missile launch sites began later that summer.
At that time, the United States mid-term elections were under way; therefore, the White House had been denying the suspected presence of the Soviet missiles 90 miles from the coast of Florida. However, the missile base construction was confirmed when an Air Force U-2 spy plane produced clear photographic evidence of the existence of Russian built medium-range SS-4 and intermediate-range R-14 ballistic missile facilities. Subsequently, the U.S. established a military naval blockade around Cuba to deter further missiles from being delivered to the island nation. In announcing the action, then President John F. Kennedy said the United States would not exclude using military force to end what he called a “clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace.” Additionally, Oval Office tape recordings made during the crisis exposed that Kennedy had also put the blockade in place as an attempt to provoke Soviet-backed forces in Berlin, and announced that they would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba and demanded that the weapons already in Cuba be dismantled and returned to the Soviet Union.
Then, following an extended period of tense negotiations, an agreement was reached between U.S. President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The USA announced publicly that the Soviets would dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to United Nations verification, in exchange for a US public declaration and agreement to avoid invading Cuba again. But secretly, the United States also agreed that it would dismantle all U.S. built Jupiter medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) that had been deployed in Turkey against the Soviet Union; there has long been debate as to whether or not Italy was included in the agreement as well.
When all offensive missiles, and Russian Ilyushin Il-28 light bombers, had been withdrawn from Cuba, the blockade was formally ended on November 21, 1962. Too, the negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union accentuated the necessity of a quick, clear, and direct line of communication between Washington DC and Moscow; consequently, the infamous Moscow–Washington hotline was established.
During the U.S. naval blockade the Soviet submarine B-59, a Project 641 Foxtrot-class diesel electric powered boat, played a momentous part in the crisis when her senior officers, believing they were under attack, contemplated launching a T-5 torpedo fitted with a nuclear warhead.
On October 1, 1962, submarine B-59 the flagship of a detachment along with its sister ships B-36, B-4 and B-130, sailed from their Soviet base on the Kola Peninsula in the Barents Sea to the Caribbean Sea in the vicinity of Cuba in support of the Soviet arms deliveries to Cuba, an operation designated by the Russians as Operation Anandr for the secret deployment of the ballistic missiles, medium-range bombers, and a division of mechanized infantry into Cuba to create an military group that would be able to defend an invasion of the island by United States forces. The plan was to deploy approximately 60,000 personnel in support of the main missile force, which consisted of three R-12 missile regiments and two R-14 missile regiments.
However, on 27 October 1962, a group of eleven United States Navy destroyers along with the aircraft carrier USS Randolph CV-16 detected the nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot class submarine near Cuba. But despite it being in international waters, the Americans initiated dropping signaling depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact with Moscow by the sub for many days and, although the submarine’s crew had earlier been picking up U.S. civilian radio broadcasts, when B-59 began attempting to evade its U.S. Navy pursuers it dove too deep to be able to monitor radio traffic. Therefore, the crew on board was unaware whether war had broken out or not. So, the captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, suspected that a war may already have started and so decided to launch a nuclear torpedo in defense of his submarine detachment.
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 second-in-command Arkhipov. Typically, Russian submarines armed with the “Special Weapon” only required the captain to get authorization from the political officer to launch a nuclear weapon, but due to Arkhipov’s position as flotilla commander, B-59’s captain also was required to gain Arkhipov’s approval. So, consequently, a debate ensued, with only Arkhipov arguing against the launch.
The T-5 torpedo was fitted with an RDS-9 nuclear warhead that had a 5-kiloton payload that could send shock-waves through the sea that are forceful enough to crush the hulls of enemy submarines.
But, even though Arkhipov was only second-in-command of the submarine, he was in fact commander of the entire submarine flotilla, including B-4, B-36 and B-130, and equal in rank to Captain Savitsky. And the reputation Arkhipov had gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year’s Soviet Submarine K-19 incident also aided him to prevail. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow, and thereby effectively averted nuclear warfare which undoubtedly would have ensued if the nuclear weapon had been launched. Additionally, the submarine’s battery power had run perilously low and so the air-conditioning had failed causing extremely hot conditions as well as high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere inside the submarine. Therefore, they were compelled to surface amidst their U.S. pursuers and set course for the Soviet Union.
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov has been credited with casting the single vote that prevented a Soviet nuclear strike and, presumably an all-out nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Because such an attack likely would have caused a major global thermonuclear response which could have resulted in the destruction of major population centers and possibly much of the civilized world. As flotilla commander and second-in-command of the diesel powered submarine B-59, only 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 “Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.
Arkhipov had been 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. Later, he transferred to the Caspian Higher Naval School and graduated in 1947.
Then, in July 1961, Arkhipov he was appointed deputy the commander and therefore executive officer of the newly constructed Hotel-class ballistic missile submarine K-19.,Then, following a few days of conducting initial exercises off the south-east coast of Greenland, the submarine developed a critical leak in its reactor coolant system that resulted in the complete failure of the system. Additionally, Radio communications were also affected, and so the crew was unable to make contact with Moscow.
And, no backup system was available on board so Commander Zateyev ordered the seven members of the engineer crew to come up with a solution to the problem in order to avoid a nuclear meltdown of the reactor core. The solution required that the men enter the reactor compartment and to labor in high radiation levels within the compartment for extended time periods. They eventually were able to jury-rig a secondary coolant system to circumvent a reactor meltdown. However, although they succeeded in averting disaster, the entire crew, including Arkhipov, was irradiated. Consequently, all the members of the engineer crew and their divisional officer died within a month caused by acute radiation syndrome (ARS) due to the high levels of radiation they were exposed to. Then, over the course of the next two years, fifteen more sailors died from the after-effects.
Arkhipov continued to serve in the Soviet Navy service, commanding submarines and later submarine squadrons. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1975 and became head of the Kirov Naval Academy. Then, he was promoted to vice admiral in 1981 and retired in the mid-1980s.
He subsequently settled in Kupavna which was incorporated into Zheleznodorozhny, Moscow Oblast, in 2004, where he died on 19 August 1998. The radiation to which Arkhipov had been exposed to in 1961 contributed to him contracting kidney cancer as did many others who served with him in the K-19 accident.
Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev, the commander of the submarine K-19 at the time of its onboard nuclear accident, died nine days later, on 28 August 1998. And, both Arkhipov and Zateyev were 72 years old at the
time of their passing. In recognition of his actions onboard B-59, Arkhipov received the first “Future of Life Award,” which was presented posthumously to his family in 2017. Offered by the Future of Life Institute, this award recognizes exceptional measures, often performed despite personal risk and without obvious reward, to safeguard the collective future of humanity.
Arkhipov’s surviving family members, represented by his daughter Elena and grandson Sergei, traveled to London for the award ceremony that was held at the Institute of Engineering & Technology. After explaining Arkhipov’s heroics to the audience, Max Tegmark, president of FLI, presented the Arkhipov family with their award. Elena and Sergei were both honored by the gesture and by the overall message of the award. And, Elena explained that her father “always thought that he did what he had to do and never consider his actions as heroism. … Our family is grateful for the prize and considers it as recognition of his work and heroism. He did his part for the future so that everyone can live on our planet.”
“Vasili Arkhipov is arguably the most important person in modern history, thanks to which October 27, 2017, isn’t the 55th anniversary of World War III,” FLI president Max Tegmark commented.
The K-19 tragedy was the basis for the film in 2002, K-19; “The Widowmaker” based on a book by Peter Huchthausen.