It’s amazing and sobering to think that there was a point in human history where one person held the fate of the entire world in their hands. We’re a species that can barely be trusted with fireworks. How can we possibly be trusted with weapons so deadly they can end all life on this planet?
Whether we can be trusted or not, these weapons cannot be uninvented. They’re here and they’re a part of the human condition. I’ve made the argument that in some ways, they have benefited the human race. That doesn’t make all the times we’ve come distressingly close to nuclear annihilation any less distressing.
Last month, I highlighted a man who, at one point, held the lives of every person on this planet in his hand. His name was Stanislav Petrov and this year, he passed away shortly before the 34th anniversary of the 1983 nuclear false alarm that almost triggered nuclear war.
That incident was horrifying in that it came so distressingly close to unleashing a nuclear war and due to a computer malfunction, no less. However, there was another incident two decades before that, one that was also disturbingly close in terms of unleashing a nuclear holocaust. Today, October 27th, happens to mark the anniversary of that terrifying, yet sobering event.
Unlike the 1983 incident, though, this is not one of those lesser-known incidents that got swept under the rug for several decades. This involved something called the Cuban Missile Crisis, a terrifying event that most kids learn about in school.
The official story is fairly well-documented. Cuba becomes a communist state, the Soviet Union tries to base mid-ranged ballistic missiles there, the United States is not okay with that, tensions escalate, and eventually, the situation diffuses when both sides realize that negotiating is a lot easier than nuclear war.
Most kids probably know names like Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro. They’re the main players who get the credit/blame for bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. However, there’s one name that few in America or Russia know about. Like Stanislav Petrov, his name is largely an afterthought in history, but at one point, he literally held the fate of humanity in his hand.
His name is Vasili Arkhipov. He was a high-ranking officer in the Soviet navy. What he did on October 27th, 1962, may very well have saved the world, as we know it. The fact that he did this at a time during one of the most tense standoffs in history makes his accomplishment all the more remarkable.
To appreciate what he did, it’s important to understand just how close the Cuban Missile Crisis came to going nuclear. At one point, a Soviet nuclear-armed submarine was stationed in international waters near Cuba. It was then detected by US destroyers and, in a message that seems pretty mixed in hindsight, began dropping depth charges to force it to surface.
Keep in mind, this sub is armed with nuclear weapons. They also had the authority from Moscow to launch those nuclear weapons if they suspected that war had already started. Once those depth charges started dropping, it’s easy to understand why the officers on board thought that the bombs were already dropping.
That’s where Vasili Arkhipov enters the picture. On that sub, every ranking officer believed that they had to launch. Their sub was running out of air and as far as they knew, if they surfaced, they would only be inhaling radioactive fallout. Everyone on that sub voted to launch. The only one who didn’t was Vasili Arkhipov and because of that, the launch never happened.
Why did Arkhipov’s vote carry so much weight? Well, before he had the fate of the world in his hands, he’d already distinguished himself in an incident involving an ill-fated Soviet submariner called K-19. Like the Cuban Missile Crisis, it resulted in a sub-par movie.
However, the movie did get one thing right. Vasili Arkhipov was a badass who knew how to make hard decisions. Why else would he have been played by Harrison Ford? That incident established Arkhipov as someone whose voice carried more weight than most in the Soviet navy. Even when he was outvoted and outranked, he could make decisions and other people would follow them.
That’s a big part of what sets someone like Vasili Arkhipov apart from Stanislav Petrov. You could argue that Petrov was just in the right place at the right time to make the right decision. That alone makes him a hero.
With Arkhipov, the decision wasn’t as clear-cut. He was an officer in the navy. He had a rank, a responsibility, and a role in one of the most tense geopolitical situations in the history of mankind. He was in a floating coffin surrounded by enemy ships with every other officer wanting to launch a nuclear strike.
He could’ve easily chosen to go along with his fellow officers. Given how badly humans respond to peer pressure, that would’ve been the easiest thing for Arkhipov to do. The fact he chose otherwise is a testament to his ability to do the right thing in a moment where the right thing is hard to grasp.
To appreciate just how hard that decision was, Arkhipov wasn’t even praised for his decision. In fact, he and his crew were disgraced for surfacing in the first place. Sure, he averted a nuclear holocaust, but he didn’t follow the proper protocol that he should’ve after being discovered by the Americans.
Granted, that protocol didn’t involve starting a nuclear war, but it showed weakness during a geopolitical shit storm. This wasn’t like the the 1983 incident in that it could be swept under the rug. This was the Cuban Missile Crisis. You don’t call something a crisis unless it’s that big a deal.
That’s what makes Vasili Arkhipov’s actions on that day all the more remarkable. He was not praised, commended, or even celebrated for his decision that day. He might not have even realized that he had the fate of the human race in his hands at that moment. Remember, he made that decision at a time when, for all he new, nuclear war had already started. Despite that, he did the right thing.
Unlike Stanislav Petrov, Vasili Arkhipov didn’t live long enough to see his accomplishments acknowledged. He died in 1988 in relative obscurity. He may not have a holiday or a monument named after him, but like Stanislav Petrov, he made a decision that saved the world.
It’s still scary to think that any one person was in a position to make such a decision to begin with. However, the fact that both he and Petrov were able to do it says more about humanity than any weapon ever will.