Tag Archives: USSR

Remembering (And Learning From) The Cuban Missile Crisis In 2020

I know 2020 has been historically awful.

I know this year will leave an unmistakable scar on countless many for multiple generations.

I know it seems like the world, as we once knew and took for granted, is ending and is never coming back.

I’m living this year-long nightmare with the rest of you. I’m experiencing all the bleak news, life disruptions, and major cancellations. For the rest of my life, no matter how it unfolds, I’ll remember 2020 and how it felt like the world was falling apart. While I don’t deny it will recover, albeit slowly, we will move forward.

At the same time, I think it helps to offer a little perspective. As bad as this year has been and as dire as things seem, you can’t definitively say this is the worst it’s ever been. That’s hyperbole and hyperbole is rarely accurate or helpful. To help make this point, I’d like to remind everyone of a real historical event in which the world almost did actually end.

That event is the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s also a wholly relevant event because, as of this writing, we’re entering the third week of October. That puts us right within that critical timeframe between October 15th and October 27th, 1962. During those fateful days, the crisis unfolded. You don’t need to be an expert in history to appreciate how close we came to nuclear war.

The specifics of the crisis are well-known. The USSR had shipped missiles with nuclear warheads into communist Cuba. The United States, feeling threatened, demanded those missiles be withdrawn. Tensions ensued. Diplomatic and military preparations were made. Every hour counted. Every decision was critical. One wrong move and millions would die in nuclear hellfire.

At one point, it came down to the decision of a single human being on a Russian sub. His name is Vasili Arkhipov and I’ve mentioned him before. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his decision not to fire nuclear-armed torpedoes in response to depth charges prevented nuclear war. We really were that close. This video nicely explains the situation.

Personally, I probably owe that man my life. My father was just kid at the time, but he, my grandmother, and grandfather lived just outside of Washington DC at the time. To offer some perspective, they were less than a 30-minute drive from National Mall and that’s accounting for traffic.

If nuclear war broke out, it’s a given that DC would be among the first targets hit. Had the missiles started flying, my entire family would’ve been among those millions of dead. I wouldn’t be here and it’s doubtful that most of the people reading this wouldn’t be here. Unlike a deadly pandemic, it wouldn’t have been a natural disease. Our destruction would’ve been our own doing.

It all unfolded in the span of two weeks. Think about that, relative how skewed our concepts of time have become in 2020. In just two weeks in 58 years, we almost destroyed ourselves and our entire civilization. We were that close to the brink, but we got through it.

It was tense. It took some key decisions from men like Vasili Arkhipov, John F. Kennedy, and Nikita Kruzchev to make it through in one peace, but we made it. There were plenty of opportunities to mess up or make the wrong decisions, but we didn’t. That’s why we’re here in 2020, alive and complaining about having to wear a mask in a restaurant.

Take a moment to appreciate that context.

Take another to appreciate how we moved forward from that event.

After the crisis, both sides of the Iron Curtain went to great lengths to avoid a situation like that. The world shrunk in the sense that communication became more critical. Countries and communities needed to communicate with one another to make sure nothing got overlooked, lost in translation, or mistook.

When there are nuclear weapons in play, you literally cannot afford to make mistakes.

Those were hard lessons for everyone. That’s why I have some sliver of hope that the scars from 2020 will teach us similar lessons. This pandemic has shown just how fragile our civilization still is. It also shows that the deadly forces of nature are apolitical. They don’t care about your ideology, race, or beliefs. They’ll hit us just as hard. They’ll hurt us just as much.

Pandemics don’t give a damn about borders. They don’t give a damn about divisions. They’re as chaotic as a nuclear explosion. They’ll burn and scar anything that gets in their path. We can’t negotiate or bullshit our way out of it. The only way we get through it is by cooperation, compassion, and understanding.

It’s been 58 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It left scars on a generation, but those scars ensured we worked harder to avoid nuclear war. I sincerely hope that the scars left by this pandemic will teach a new generation how to cooperate and how to get through a global crisis like this.

Those hopes may seem overly ambitious, given how divided we still are. I believe our desire to not live in a world ravaged by disease or nuclear war will motivate us to unite in the long run.

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Vasili Arkhipov: Another Man Who Saved The World

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 PetrovVasili 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.

Image result for vasili arkhipov grave

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.

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Just How Close Have We Come (And How Close ARE We) To Nuclear War?

For most of human history, we could take comfort in one simple fact. No matter how brutish, crude, or stupid we were, from burning witches to fighting wars over a stray dog, we could never screw up so badly that we would destroy our entire world. Sure, we could leave some pretty noticeable scars, but we could never outright destroy it.

That all changed on July 16, 1945 in Los Alamos, New Mexico when the first atomic bomb was detonated. It’s impossible to overstate how significant that moment was in the history of the human race and not just because it helped end World War II, thereby inspiring countless war movies for decades to come.

For the first time in the history of planet Earth, a species that had evolved to hunt, gather, and pick nuts out of elephant shit had the means to wipe itself out, along with most other life. At the height of the Cold War, there were approximately 64,500 active nuclear warheads. That’s enough destructive power to kill every person in the world, and their pets, many times over.

While the number of live nuclear warheads at the global level has decreased, they still have plenty of destructive power to both wipe out our species and render large chunks of the world uninhabitable to any species less hardy than a cockroach. These are, by and large, the most dangerous items mankind has ever created and that includes machine guns, nerve gas, and fidget spinners.

The very existence of these weapons says a lot about the state of our species and where it came from, more so than I can cover in a single blog post. However, in wake of the 35th anniversary of the day when the world, as we know it, almost ended, I think it’s worth emphasizing just how skilled/lucky/crazy we are to still live in an intact world.

Despite the undeniable danger of nuclear weapons, we don’t always treat them with the same care that we would treat the latest iPhone. Several years ago, John Oliver dedicated an entire show to highlighting the sorry state of America’s nuclear arsenal. Even if you only believe half of what a comedy news show tells you, it’s hard to take much comfort when weapons of mass destruction are involved.

What happened on September 26th, 1983 was terrifying in just how close we came to nuclear war. Many would make the argument that this incident was the closest we, as a species, came to destroying ourselves. I would tend to agree with that argument. Unfortunately, it’s one of those arguments that has an uncomfortable breadth of details.

It’s true. There have been more incidents that could’ve easily escalated to terrifying levels. Some were simple accidents that could’ve warranted far more than a demotion. Some where intense, geopolitical ordeals that went onto inspire major Hollywood movies starring Kevin Costner.

In any case, the stakes were painfully high. You literally can’t get much higher than a nuclear war that wipes out billions. We’ve managed to avoid it, but we’ve come so uncomfortably close that it’s a miracle the world is still spinning. A video from the YouTube channel AllTimeTop10s nicely documents some of these incidents. If you feel like you’re having a bad day, this should help provide some context.

I’ll give everyone a moment to catch their breath, vomit, or a combination of the two. I promise nobody would blame you. Knowing how close we came to nuclear war and how bad it could’ve been, we should all share in a collective sigh of relief every day.

However, as bad as these past cases have been, there’s no guarantee that we won’t face something similar in the future. There’s also no guarantee that there will be someone like Santislav Petrov to make the right decision when those situations come around.

That said, the situation today is very different than what it was during the Cold War. Say what you will about ongoing talking points about Russia. It’s not even in the same hemisphere at it was in the 50s and 60s when the United States and Russia seemed eager for an opportunity to go to war.

The world of geopolitics has evolved, in many ways, beyond the concept of two competing superpowers engaging in a nuclear dick-measuring contest. These days, increased globalism and a more interconnected economy makes that kind of geopolitical strategy untenable and counterproductive.

In a sense, globalization and the economic bounty that came with it made war of any kind, nuclear or otherwise, a losing endeavor. As I’ve noted before, even the most evil billionaires in the world prefer that the world remain intact so they can keep enjoying their billions. That’s just common sense and shameless self-interest.

That might offer some comfort, but there are those much smarter than I’ll ever be who still have concerns. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who have been gauging the likelihood of nuclear war for decades, we’re two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. This is their statement on the matter.

For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.

Since I’m an aspiring erotica/romance writer and not an atomic scientist, I am woefully unqualified to contest the conclusions of these individuals, let alone argue them. They cite a new wave of tensions between Russia and the United States, as well as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. These are not the same conflicts that fueled the Cold War and that uncertainty has many understandably spooked.

Me being the optimist I am, I tend to believe that world leaders, however deranged or misguided they may be, prefer that the world remain intact. Nobody wants to be the leader of a smoldering pile of ash. There’s no way to build a palace, a harem, or a giant golden statue of themselves on a foundation of ash. That’s as good an incentive as anyone can hope for in avoiding nuclear war.

Unfortunately, human beings don’t always act rationally and are prone to making stupid decisions that change the course of history. One mistake in a situation involving nuclear weapons might be all it takes. Only time will tell, but the extent to which we’ve survived thus far should give us all reasons to be hopeful and thankful.

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