Soviet naval officer Vasili Arkhipov (1926–1998) was second in command of the Soviet nuclear submarine B-59 during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Through his refusal to join his captain in authorizing the launch of a nuclear torpedo against a U.S. destroyer, he prevented a devastating loss of life and the escalation of the cold war crisis into nuclear war.
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov had a long career in the Soviet military, graduating from naval college and joining the submarine fleet as the technology of undersea craft was being tested and refined through war. Although he served his country through World War II, Arkhipov made his mark on history several decades later, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Arkhipov was born on January 30, 1926, to a peasant family living in Staraya Kupavna, a town near Moscow, Russia. Less than a decade before, in 1917, Russia's hereditary monarchy had been swept away and communism had been introduced as a system of government. After fighting among the socialist Bolsheviks (“Reds”), the anti-socialists (“Whites”), and non-Bolshevik socialists, the Bolsheviks emerged as the ruling party and in 1922 formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R., also called the Soviet Union) from Russia and several neighboring states. The revolution's authors (including Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union's first head of government) preached and sought to foment global revolution, and socialist revolts occurred in some neighboring states, following Russia's example.
After Lenin's death in 1924, his successor, Joseph Stalin, proclaimed that “Socialism in One Country” was not only possible but was the new law of the land. Stalin's regime emphasized the centralization of power, the economy, and education. For this reason, Arkhipov, although born a peasant, was provided a state-funded education and the opportunity to advance his career through military studies.
After World War II (1939–45), the United States and the U.S.S.R. emerged as the world's major superpowers. Although the two nations and Great Britain had collaborated in bringing the global conflict to an end, political and military tensions defined the confrontational relationship between the totalitarian Eastern Bloc, led by Russia, and the United States and its democratic allies. This tension, which was described as a “cold war,” consisted of distrust, mutual maneuvering, and defensive posturing. While no actual battles occurred, several proxy wars (smaller conflicts between allies of either superpower) erupted over the years.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of these, and it occurred in October 1962, around the small island nation of Cuba. Under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro, Cuba was placed under communist leadership and had ties to the Soviet Union. After a failed invasion by U.S.-backed paramilitary forces attempting to overthrow his government, Castro and Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev agreed to build launch sites for Soviet missiles on the island. U.S. spy planes detected these construction efforts, and the U.S. military recognized the threat such missiles would pose. Both U.S. president John Kennedy and Khrushchev deployed military ships and aircraft to the area in a frightening show of opposing force. Arkhipov's submarine, B-59, was part of a flotilla of five deployed to the area, ordered to defend against a group of U.S. destroyers and aircraft carrier.
After depth charges were dropped from a U.S. destroyer on the ocean surface, the captain of the submerged B-59 ordered that the submarine's missiles be launched. Such a launch required authorization from three of the submarine's executive officers: the captain, the second in command (Arkhipov), and the submarine's political officer. Even as crew members were arming the nuclear warhead for launch, Arkhipov withheld his approval of the launch, pointing out to the captain that none of the depth charges dropped on the submarine had breeched the hull, the required condition for deadly response. Also, the submarine's batteries were very low, and Arkhipov suggested that they surface and leave the area. The captain finally agreed.
Ultimately the tensions between the two superpowers were defused, and U.S. and Soviet forces were withdrawn from Cuba. Both sides agreed that a means of quick, clear communication between Washington, D.C., and Moscow was needed, and this led to the establishment of a “hotline” between the two governments. It would not be until 40 years later, however, that either side fully comprehended how easily the events of October 1962 could have escalated into tragedy.
In 2002, several former adversaries from the Cuban Missile Crisis met again, their goal to review the events of 1962. It was a three-day conference held in Havana, Cuba, and organized by Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. Also attending were retired military and government personnel who had taken part in the crisis. “The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world,” commented Blanton, as he recalled in the Washington Post. His comment came during a presentation on submarine involvement in the standoff. Although the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred over several days and was complex, with myriad stories shared and insights gained, the story of Vasili Arkhipov's principled argument with his captain and its implications stood out.
After his tenure aboard B-59, Arkhipov continued his naval career, commanding submarines and then squadrons. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1975, and he also became head of the Kirov Naval Academy. He was again promoted in 1981, this time to vice admiral. He retired a few years later, and died on August 19, 1998, in Zheleznodorozhny, near Moscow.
Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide, ABC-Clio, 2012.
Riasanovsky, Nichlas V., and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, 7th edition, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Scott, Len, and R. Gerald Hughes, editors, The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Critical Reappraisal, Routledge, 2015.
Boston Globe, October 13, 2002, Marion Lloyd. “Soviets Close to Using A-Bomb in 1962 Crisis, Forum Is Told,” p. A20.
Washington Post, October 16, 2002, Thomas S. Blanton, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: 40 Years Later”(interview).
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, No. 75, October 31, 2002.❑