One levelheaded decision taken by Vasily Alexandrovich Arkhipov about six decades ago today may have changed the fate of the world.
Fifty-nine years ago, a senior Russian submarine officer, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, refused to fire a nuclear torpedo at an American aircraft carrier and likely prevented a third world war and nuclear destruction.
It was an era when the two greatest world powers, the US and Soviet Union, were at the brink of war over the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
The premier of the Soviet Union at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, while promising to defend Cuba with the USSR's military, may have miscalculated how severe the US' reaction would be.
In July 1962, after learning about Soviet Union's missile shipments to Cuba and the construction of new military facilities there with the help of Soviet technicians, US President John F Kennedy declared a naval blockade of Cuba.
By October 27, 1962, the tension between the two sides had spiked to a point where US warships began dropping explosives on a Soviet submarine B-59 after it was spotted in the Caribbean by the American navy.
The US Navy tried to force the submarine to rise to the surface but they were not aware of the fact that the B-59 was laced with a nuclear-tipped torpedo with roughly the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
There were four Soviet submarines carrying the same bomb and the commander of each was empowered to act and use them without getting direct orders from Moscow in case of a threat.
The crew of the B-59 was exhausted after travelling for almost a month. They failed to keep themselves up to date with the latest developments as some technical issues resulted in a lack of communication with Moscow.
With US forces dropping depth charges, the B-59 crew faced a new wave of explosions. It was then that Valentin Savitsky surmised that the nuclear war had already started between his country and the US. He ordered the firing of the B-59’s biggest weapon, the ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to target the giant aircraft carrier, the USS Randolf which was leading the US task force.
However, as per the procedures of the Soviet Army, such an attack would take place with the approval of three senior submarine officers.
It was precisely at this moment that the Soviet officer Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov came forward and expressed his disagreement with Savitsky. While explaining his reasoning to Savitsky, Arkhipov argued that the submarine was not in danger, saying the US navy was only trying to figure out the submarine's identity.
In addition, Arkhipov stressed the fact that they had not taken orders for a long time from Moscow and such a destructive move like firing a nuclear torpedo at the US navy would be ill-advised and insisted on the B-59 to rise to the surface first to make contact with Soviet officials.
Thanks to his warning and prudent advice, the Soviet submarine met the US destroyer on the surface. The US officers neither got onboard nor conducted any inspections. Now, the Russians turned their course from Cuba and headed for Russia.
In the following days, Soviet premier Khrushchev offered the dismantling of the bases his country had built in Cuba in exchange for the promise of Kennedy to lift the blockade and not invade Cuba. Thus, a major crisis was averted, and the fear of nuclear war was replaced by a mild reconciliation.
Arkhipov kept serving in the navy and retired in the mid-1980s after becoming an admiral. He died in 1999 due to health complications caused by radiation that he had been exposed to during his naval career.
Three years after his death, Director of the American Research and Archival Institution, Tom Blanton while commenting on the move of Arkhipov said; “A man called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”
Today, many believe that if the B-59's nuclear torpedo had been launched, the world would have entered a nuclear war that could have devastated humanity.
In 2017, years after his death, Arkhipov was honoured with the “Future of Life Award” by a US-based organisation called Future of Life Institute whose members of the advisory board included prominent figures like Elon Musk and Morgan Freeman.