“The man who saved the world” is a pretty impressive title. But that’s exactly what Vasili Arkhipov did. Arkhipov was second in command on one of the Soviet Union’s four B-59 attack submarines, sent to Cuba in October of 1962. Arkhipov’s submarine carried 22 torpedoes, one of which was nuclear—and as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Each of the captains had been given permission to fire their nuclear torpedoes as long as they had the blessing of their on-board political officer. The only other officer with veto power was Vasili Arkhipov, who was in charge of the submarine flotilla.
Because the submarines had been so deep under water en route to Cuba they did not receive radio transmissions from Moscow about the United States’ naval blockade of Cuba. So on October 27, when eleven U.S. destroyers and the USS Randolph located the submarine Arkhipov was on and began dropping depth charges to force it to surface and identify its self, Soviet captain Valentin Savitsky mistakenly believed war had begun. He and the political officer on board wanted to respond by launching their nuclear torpedo. Arkhipov forcefully disagreed, arguing that no direct order had come from Moscow and such a response would be catastrophic. He suggested the sub surface and find out for sure what was going on. A heated argument reportedly ensued between the three men in charge, but Arkhipov held his ground against the other two officers. Eventually, he prevailed. The submarine surfaced, was told by the Americans to return to the Soviet Union, and a nuclear war was averted.
It is believed that Arkhipov’s position eventually carried the day because of his prior heroism. You see, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had been present at another near-catastrophic nuclear disaster!
In July of 1961, the K-19 nuclear submarine Arkhipov was on, complete with a nuclear missile, sprung a leak in the reactor coolant system and was in real danger of a nuclear meltdown. Engineers on board the sub built a make-shift cooling system and were able to contain the overheating reactor. But the first-responders, along with many crewmen, died of radiation exposure and in response the crew of the K-19 almost erupted in mutiny. Arkhipov himself was seriously irradiated, but stood by his captain, was credited with helping to quell the revolt, and was later awarded a medal for valor.
Arkhipov would go on to serve another twenty years, retiring as a Rear Admiral. He died in 1998 at the age of 72, and his exposure to radiation on the K-19 was cited as a contributing cause of death.
A man who was in the right place at the right time—twice! And the world should be very grateful.
Vasili Arkhipov is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.