How One Soviet Submarine Commander Averted World War III

Roundup
tags: Cuban Missile Crisis



Last Monday – October 27 – marked the fifty-second anniversary of a day when the world came staggeringly close to nuclear war. Despite the many decades that have transpired since that fateful date, the story of that day remains a worthy one to re-tell, for all the things that went wrong, the one thing that went right, and for the enduring implications it has for the command and control of nuclear weapons on submarines in today’s world.

On that day in 1962, deep in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a U.S. destroyer began dropping depth charges on a Soviet nuclear-armed submarine with the intention of forcing it to surface even though it was in international waters. The submarine had lost contact with Moscow several days prior and as it dove deeper to try to evade its pursuers it was too deep to receive transmissions. The submarine captain, thinking that World War Three had broken out and all was lost, gave orders for one of the submarine’s torpedoes with a ten-kiloton nuclear warhead to be launched at a nearby U.S. aircraft carrier.

But for the torpedo to be launched, the submarine’s top three commanders had to agree, and one refused. His name was Vasili Arkhipov. Had Arkhipov not disagreed, or if he had been shouted down, the mushroom clouds would likely have quickly spread across the Caribbean and the Atlantic, engulfing the United States, the Soviet Union, and Europe as well, and irrevocably changing human history. It was in the control room of the Soviet submarine, not in Moscow or Washington, that the decision to begin a nuclear war was made, and in that same control room that one man’s decision postponed Armageddon. 

Although the idea of one person standing in the way of nuclear war might seem like a Cold War tale and no longer applicable in the 21st century, as more and more countries deploy nuclear-armed submarines, addressing questions of command and control and who ultimately is in charge of decision-making is of the utmost relevance and increasingly urgent... 




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