Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Time a Single Soviet Officer Averted a Nuclear War

Avery Thompson, Popular Mechanics
27 September 2016

In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviets began moving nuclear missiles into Cuba. When the Americans found out, it triggered a diplomatic and military crisis on an unprecedented scale. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has ever come to full-scale nuclear war, and for a brief moment, only one man stood between the world and nuclear annihilation, his name was Vasili Arkhipov.
The story starts a year before, when the U.S. tried to stage a coup in Cuba to oust the newly elected Fidel Castro. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a failure and an embarrassment for the American government. In response, Cuba asked the now emboldened Soviets for assistance. The U.S.S.R. began sending nuclear missiles to Cuba. When the U.S. found out, it set up a blockade. The Soviets viewed this as an act of aggression, and diplomatic ties between the two countries began to break down. Nuclear war was looking more and more likely every day.

In this environment of heightened tensions, a group of U.S. Navy ships located a Soviet submarine in the waters off Cuba. The Navy ships dropped a depth charge to force the sub to the surface. The sub, the Soviet B-59, was too deep to receive any radio communications, and the crew suspected that war had already broken out.
The captain, Valentin Savitsky, decided to launch the sub's nuclear missiles toward the United States. Launching the missiles required the unanimous vote of the three senior officers: the captain, the ship's political officer Ivan Maslennikov, and the first officer, Vasili Arkhipov.
Both Captain Savitsky and Maslennikov voted to launch the missiles, but Arkhipov did not. An intense argument broke out among the three men, but Arkhipov managed to convince Savitsky to surface. This action likely averted a nuclear war. In the end, Arkhipov's actions allowed the U.S. to negotiate peace with the Soviets and end the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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