The National Geographic Society
A Blog by Robert Krulwich
Especially when nuclear weapons are involved and you don’t—you can’t—know what the enemy is up to, and you’re scared. Then it helps (it helps a lot) to be calm.
The world owes an enormous debt to a quiet, steady Russian naval officer who probably saved my life. And yours. And everyone you know. Even those of you who weren’t yet born. I want to tell his story …
It’s October 1962, the height of the Cuban missile crisis, and there’s a Soviet submarine in the Caribbean that’s been spotted by the American Navy. President Kennedy has blockaded Cuba. No sea traffic is permitted through.
Photograph by NY Daily News Archive, Getty
The sub is hiding in the ocean, and the Americans are dropping depth charges left and right of the hull. Inside, the sub is rocking, shaking with each new explosion. What the Americans don’t know is that this sub has a tactical nuclear torpedo on board, available to launch, and that the Russian captain is asking himself, Shall I fire?
This actually happened.
The Russian in question, an exhausted, nervous submarine commander named Valentin Savitsky, decided to do it. He ordered the nuclear-tipped missile readied. His second in command approved the order. Moscow hadn’t communicated with its sub for days. Eleven U.S. Navy ships were nearby, all possible targets. The nuke on this missile had roughly the power of the bomb at Hiroshima.
“We’re gonna blast them now!”
Temperatures in the submarine had climbed above 100 degrees. The air-conditioning system was broken, and the ship couldn’t surface without being exposed. The captain felt doomed. Vadim Orlov, an intelligence officer who was there, remembers a particularly loud blast: “The Americans hit us with something stronger than the grenades—apparently with a practice depth bomb,” he wrote later. “We thought, That’s it, the end.” And that’s when, he says, the Soviet captain shouted, “Maybe the war has already started up there … We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.”
Had Savitsky launched his torpedo, had he vaporized a U.S. destroyer or aircraft carrier, the U.S. would probably have responded with nuclear-depth charges, “thus,” wrote Russian archivist Svetlana Savranskaya, understating wildly, “starting a chain of inadvertent developments, which could have led to catastrophic consequences.”
But it didn’t happen, because that’s when Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov steps into the story.
Photo courtesy of M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya
He was 34 at the time. Good looking, with a full head of hair and something like a spit curl dangling over his forehead. He was Savitsky’s equal, the flotilla commander responsible for three Russian subs on this secret mission to Cuba—and he is maybe one of the quietest, most unsung heroes of modern times.
What he said to Savitsky we will never know, not exactly. But, says Thomas Blanton, the former director of the nongovernmental National Security Archive, simply put, this “guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”
Arkhipov, described by his wife as a modest, soft-spoken man, simply talked Savitsky down.
The exact details are controversial. The way it’s usually told is that each of the three Soviet submarine captains in the ocean around Cuba had the power to launch a nuclear torpedo if—and only if—he had the consent of all three senior officers on board. On his sub, Savitsky gave the order and got one supporting vote, but Arkhipov balked. He wouldn’t go along.
He argued that this was not an attack.
The official Soviet debriefs are still secret, but a Russian reporter, Alexander Mozgovoi, an American writer, and eyewitness testimony from intelligence officer Orlov suggest that Arkhipov told the captain that the ship was not in danger. It was being asked to surface. Dropping depth charges left then right, noisy but always off target—those are signals, Arkhipov argued. They say, We know you’re there. Identify yourselves. Come up and talk. We intend no harm.
The Russian crew couldn’t tell what was going on above them: They’d gone silent well before the crisis began. Their original orders were to go directly to Cuba, but then, without explanation, they’d been ordered to stop and wait in the Caribbean. Orlov, who had lived in America, heard from American radio stations that Russia had secretly brought missiles to the island, that Cuba had shot down a U.S. spy plane, that President Kennedy had ordered the U.S. Navy to surround the island and let no one pass through. When Americans had spotted the sub, Savitsky had ordered it to drop deeper into the ocean, to get out of sight—but that had cut them off. They couldn’t hear (and didn’t trust) U.S. media. For all they knew, the war had already begun
We don’t know how long they argued. We do know that the nuclear weapons the Russians carried (each ship had just one, with a special guard who stayed with it, day and night) were to be used only if Russia itself had been attacked. Or if attack was imminent. Savitsky felt he had the right to fire first. Official Russian accounts insist he needed a direct order from Moscow, but Archipov’s wife Olga says there was a confrontation.
She and Ryurik Ketov, the gold-toothed captain of a nearby Russian sub, both heard the story directly from Vasili. Both believe him and say so in this PBS documentary. Some scenes are dramatized, but listen to what they say …
As the drama unfolded, Kennedy worried that the Russians would mistake depth charges for an attack. When his defense secretary said the U.S. was dropping “grenade”-size signals over the subs, the president winced. His brother Robert Kennedy later said that talk of depth charges “were the time of greatest worry to the President. His hand went up to his face [and] he closed his fist.”
Video Still From the PBS documentary, “Missile Crisis: The Man Who Saved the World.“
The Russian command, for its part, had no idea how tough it was inside those subs. Anatoly Andreev, a crew member on a different, nearby sub, kept a journal, a continuing letter to his wife, that described what it was like:
For the last four days, they didn’t even let us come up to the periscope depth … My head is bursting from the stuffy air. … Today three sailors fainted from overheating again … The regeneration of air works poorly, the carbon dioxide content [is] rising, and the electric power reserves are dropping. Those who are free from their shifts, are sitting immobile, staring at one spot. … Temperature in the sections is above 50 [122ºF].
The debate between the captain and Arkhipov took place in an old, diesel-powered submarine designed for Arctic travel but stuck in a climate that was close to unendurable. And yet, Arkhipov kept his cool. After their confrontation, the missile was not readied for firing. Instead, the Russian sub rose to the surface, where it was met by a U.S. destroyer. The Americans didn’t board. There were no inspections, so the U.S. Navy had no idea that there were nuclear torpedos on those subs—and wouldn’t know for around 50 years, when the former belligerents met at a 50th reunion. Instead, the Russians turned away from Cuba and headed north, back to Russia.
Photograph courtesy of U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Record Group 428, Item 428-N-711199
Looking back, it all came down to Arkhipov. Everyone agrees that he’s the guy who stopped the captain. He’s the one who stood in the way.
He was, as best as we can tell, not punished by the Soviets. He was later promoted. Reporter Alexander Mozgovoi describes how the Soviet Navy conducted a formal review and how the man in charge, Marshal Grachko, when told about conditions on those ships, “removed his glasses and hit them against the table in fury, breaking them into small pieces, and abruptly leaving the room after that.”
Photo courtesy of M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya
How Arkhipov (that’s him up above) managed to keep his temper in all that heat, how he managed to persuade his frantic colleague, we can’t say, but it helps to know that Arkhopov was already a Soviet hero. A year earlier he’d been on another Soviet sub, the K-19, when the coolant system failed and the onboard nuclear reactor was in danger of meltdown. With no backup system, the captain ordered the crew to jerry-rig a repair, and Arkhopov, among others, got exposed to high levels of radiation. Twenty-two crew members died from radiation sickness over the next two years. Arkhipov wouldn’t die until 1998, but it would be from kidney cancer, brought on, it’s said, by exposure.
Nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous. Handling them, using them, not using them, requires caution, care. Living as we do now with North Korea, Pakistani generals, jihadists, and who knows who’ll be the next U.S. president, the world is very, very lucky that at one critical moment, someone calm enough, careful enough, and cool enough was there to say no.
Thanks to Alex Wellerstein, author of the spectacular blog Restricted Data, for his help guiding me to source material on this subject.
22 thoughts on “You (and Almost Everyone You Know) Owe Your Life to This Man.”
- Cornell Greensays: March 26, 2016 at 2:12 pm Bravo, Robert!An excellent article… and a cautionary tale, especially for those “bomb ’em back to the stone age” advocates among us. As if we are the only ones with bombs. Reply
- FSWoodsays: March 26, 2016 at 8:10 pm Dad was a senior US Navy officer who on USN Destroyers for some years hunted Soviet subs.
And knowing both him and my Mother, and guessing that other people can have similar character, I accept that at face vale — “Official Russian accounts insist he needed a direct order from Moscow, but Archipov’s wife Olga says there was a confrontation. She and Ryurik Ketov, the gold-toothed captain of a nearby Russian sub, both heard the story directly from Vasili. Both believe him and say so in this PBS documentary.” Reply
- Robert Krulwichsays: March 27, 2016 at 2:01 pm FSW– I wondered myself. It seems strange — deeply strange — that the Soviets would have left such a monstrously important decision in the hands of field commanders. But apparently they did. And as nuclear weapons get downsized into nuclear arms, and then tactical nuclear devices, as the technology makes terrible things smaller and smaller, I hope the command system keeps the decisions and the decision-makers big and important, and most of all – steady. I don’t know who’s minding the store in Belgium at those nuclear plants, or who’s making decisions in those places I mention, but I’m getting more and more nervous. Reply
- Vickie Kaspersays: March 27, 2016 at 8:04 am Good thing Donald Trump wasn’t involved in the decision. Reply
- Jeanninesays: March 28, 2016 at 11:16 am My first thought exsactly!!!! Reply
- FlyoverMikesays: March 28, 2016 at 3:01 pm Good thing Barack Obama wasn’t involved in the decision. Reply
- Marc Lapointesays: March 28, 2016 at 6:22 pm Very good thing JFK and RFK were ! Reply
- lgstarnsays: March 28, 2016 at 6:25 pm Right, he might have made peace with Cuba earlier. That would have been terrible. Reply
- Marc Lapointesays: March 28, 2016 at 8:00 pm Apparently, JFK had a emissary speaking with Castro at time of his murder. Had he live , the world would be a very different place; just imagine no Vietnam war. Listen at the former president Eisenhower speak about the new world order and the power of the war industry. Reply
- Charles J Gallagher Jrsays: March 28, 2016 at 7:09 am Arkhipov, possibly more than any other individual in history, did prevent a potential nuclear exchange. The article is excellent and generally accurate. In addition the four Foxtrot Class Commanding Officers were given oral orders before they departed: reach Cuba undetected or do not come back alive. They were also told that under extraordinary circumstances they should use the nuclear tipped torpedo without orders from Moscow. I was on the USS Charles P. Cecil (DDR-835) which held sonar contact on one of the four Foxtrots until it ran out of air and had to surface. Reply
- Nitasays: March 28, 2016 at 12:07 pm Thank you for your service, sir. Reply
- CJ Rolphesays: March 28, 2016 at 5:03 pm I was stationed at Charleston AFB when this happened…it was real scary! But not HALF AS SCARY as it is knowing this was going on!!! wow!!! Reply
- Dr. Richard G. Macdonaldsays: March 28, 2016 at 9:50 am This edited Letter to Editor of the Peoria Journal Star in Peoria IL was published on Saturday, March 26. The paragraph of my wife being blocked performing her important position by NORAD during the Cuban crisis due to her ID card was edited out by the paper. I felt it was an analogy to voter ID restrictions now allowed by the ruling of SCOTUS. Enjoyed the article as I personally knew how close we were to war. I & my fellow Army doctors were in fascinating horror during those 10 days. Have many sidebar stories of that time which I experienced during those 10 days.Dr. Richard G. Macdonald
Forum PJSMar 22 at 3:53 PMAt this moment, I am sitting watching a base ballgame. It is a game between Cuba & Tampa Bay Rays in Havana Cuba. Everyone on that field and in the stands could immediately walk across our southern borders to freedom without even a wall stopping them. President Obama & Cuba President Raul Castro are sitting together high fiving each other for great outfield catches. Thanks to Congress and the Statue of Liberty, this ability to be accepted right now by our country without qualms while these two Presidents sit next to each other smiling is sign of our country’s greatness.Yet candidates for the office of the president not only think 50 years of failure is a sign of Cuban foreign policy success but now want to prevent every other country’s citizens being accepted with the same access to USA that Cuba now has. Matter of fact, a few of the candidates even brag about their heritage with Cuba and how their own family exists in the USA because of this privileged Congressional approval.As an enlisted man during the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall being built and then as an officer; I had to make out a will & testament, get a yellow flu shot after standing in silence with my fellow hospital doctors in front of a black and white TV set watching President Kennedy saying we may be on the brink of atomic warfare.At the same time, my wife worked as an executive secretary for NORAD and couldn’t go to work to serve our country in high crisis as her Army dependent ID card was invalid until she obtained an Air Force ID. Reminds me of voting ID laws today by states afraid of people voting. The exception is that we aren’t on the brink of going to war with Russia in 1962 but the fear on IDs by elected office holders appears to be the same.As a Vet, I much prefer high fiving at a baseball game than using Shock & Awe to win over a country and its people.Richard G. MacdonaldTremont, IL 61568 Reply
- A Pakistanisays: March 28, 2016 at 1:02 pm The blatant reference to “pakistani generals” and associating them with the likes of “jihadists” was very derogatory and sad to read. Please refrain from such remarks. You just offended 20 million people. Reply
- Erik Scothronsays: March 28, 2016 at 2:50 pm No, he just offended you. Try to get a little perspective. Reply
- Rhyssensays: March 28, 2016 at 2:54 pm Do be quiet, you (as a nation) are a danger to yourself and you don’t even realize it. And your comment is proof enough. Instead of taking this article as it is, your feathers get ruffled like a 12 year old girl who’s been told she cant have desert. You have 20 million generals in your country? You just offended your own civilians who mitigate for peace. Reply
- gaurav rasailysays: March 28, 2016 at 1:09 pm never heard about that .all i knew was from the amercian point of view ..there are always those people in the middle of crisis who can keep calm and pull out danger with very highr risk and become reason of saving lives … Reply
- Karolsays: March 28, 2016 at 2:11 pm Great story and I hope the state control of such dangeroues weapons era soon will be over. Reply
- Florent Pirotsays: March 28, 2016 at 3:55 pm Interesting – didn’t knew Arkhipov was on board K19 and got irradiated.Talking about jihadists and the proliferation risk, here’s a link of interest (my work) :
Metallic enriched uranium is actually being circulated because it is used in missiles, for oxydation purposes. Reply
- Bob Crainsays: March 28, 2016 at 4:12 pm If you are surprised to find nuclear torpedoes in the hands of individual crews, read Command and Control, the Damascus Accident … by Eric Schlosser (sp?) Reply
- Linsays: March 28, 2016 at 4:21 pm There is a similar story told by the aid of one of the Chiefs of staff of the military of the day of the confrontation. All of them were in Kennedy’s office waiting to see if the Soviet fleet would cross the red line that JFK had drawn as the “act of war” line. The guy in command of the American ships called to say that the Soviet ships had crossed the line. All the people in the room were commanding the president to give the order to attack. The guy telling his eye witness story said that President Kennedy sat there in his rocking chair with everyone yelling at him about how we “had to hit them.” This would surely have resulted in a nuclear war. His family had already been evacuated from Washington and the plane was standing ready to take him out to the caves in the Midwest. Finally, he said, with tears in his eyes, ” I can’t. I have children.” Now JFK was a decorated war hero. He was no wimp. A minute later, the phone rang. It was the commander again. It was a mistake. The Soviet fleet had not crossed the red line. They had stopped and turned around. When I heard that story, my first thought was that this was what JFK was sent to us for, for that one moment in history when one strong man stood against all his advisors and the opinion of the world and said, “I can’t. I have children” to save us all unknowingly from an error that would have had devastating consequences beyond the imagination.
Robert Krulwich is cohost of Radiolab, WNYC’s Peabody Award–winning program about “big ideas” and now one of public radio’s most popular shows. It is carried on more than 500 radio stations, and its podcasts are downloaded over five million times each month.In Curiously Krulwich, Robert looks for “the little things that catch my eye—that when I lean in, get bigger, richer, and much more compelling.”You can see more of Robert’s work at radiolab.com and follow him on Twitter at @rkrulwich.