Ethics Hero Emeritus: Vasily Arkhipov (1926 –1998)

I was so focused yesterday on commemorating my son’s birthday and the Boston Red Sox’s “curse”-breaking victory, both October 27 highlights, that I neglected to note the minor matter of nuclear war being averted because of the integrity and courage of a Russian naval officer few Americans have heard of. Let me fix that…

October 27, 1962, was right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in a stand-off over the discovery of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Any number of miscalculations or rash actions could have triggered a nuclear war. US Navy destroyers located the diesel powered sub B-59, one of a four sub Soviet flotilla, near Cuba and commenced dropping small depth charges to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. This itself was a risky measure, as the American ships were in international waters.

Soviet Captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky misread the tactic and believed the American ships were trying destroy the K-59. His sub had received no contact from Moscow for several days and he was relying on American radio broadcasts to determine what was happening while the USSR and the US were “eyeball to eyeball.” Savitsky sent his vessel deep to hide from the American war ships, and at the resulting depth the B-59 could get no radio signals at all. Savitsky, perhaps addled by stress and conditions on the submarine that included a build-up of carbon dioxide, decided a war had started. He wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo. It wasn’t known by the US. at the time that the B-59 had nuclear weapons. But they it did, and almost used one..

Soviet submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes generally required one man’s order—that of the captain— with the agreement of the political officer all Soviet ships carried (you know, like the guy Soviet super-sub captain Sean Connery murders in “The Hunt for the Red October”) making two, to launch the weapons. In this case, however, three agreements were required by Soviet Navy regulations. By pure chance, Vasily Arkhipov, the commander of the flotilla and equal in rank to Captain Savitsky, happened to be aboard Savitsky’s sub rather than one of the other three under his command. His affirmative vote to launch was therefore mandatory.

And Vasily Arkhipov said no. Reportedly the three men argued; not much is known about what exactly transpired. If this plot seems familiar, however, there is a reason: the 1995 film “Crimson Tide” was based on the incident, reversing the countries involved with Gene Hackman playing the sub captain and Denzel Washington taking the role of Arkhipov.

Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface and await further orders from Moscow, and the flotilla was directed to return home. Arkhipov was in the position to stop nuclear war because of the respect and status he had earned in his previous experience a year earlier with another submarine crisis. That one also became a Hollywood movie: the 2002 film “K-19, The Widowmaker” starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson (in the Arkhipov role).

In 1961, Arkhipov was appointed deputy commander of the new ballistic missile submarine K-19, the first Soviet nuclear sub. While conducting exercises off of Greenland, the submarine developed an leak in its reactor coolant system causing it to fail. In this case as well, radio communications were affected and the captain was unable to contact Moscow. With no backup systems, captain Nikolai Zateyev asked the seven members of the engineer crew to figure out to avoid a nuclear meltdown and they did, devising a secondary coolant system. But the entire crew, including Arkhipov, were contaminated with radiation. All members of the engineer crew and their divisional officer died within a month; fifteen more sailors died from within two years. It may have been the radiation that eventually caused the kidney cancer that killed Arkhipov at the age of 72.

Vasily Arkhipov continued in Soviet Navy service, commanding submarines and later submarine squadrons. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1975, and later became head of the Kirov Naval Academy. Arkhipov was promoted to vice admiral in 1981 and retired in a few years later.

The full story of his role in the Cuban Missile crisis did not become known until 2002, when it was revealed for the first time that the K-59 had nuclear weapons. Responding to the new information, Thomas Blanton, the director of the US National Security Archive, opined that Arkhipov had “saved the world.”


Pointer: Fark

Facts: Patch

19 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Vasily Arkhipov (1926 –1998)

  1. And he had movie star good looks.

    Tragic that Russia and the U.S. are congenitally at each other’s throats. I think Russians and Americans have a lot in common: hard working, family oriented, quasi-religious, talented.

        • In general, yes. There were some people who weren’t fans of Tsarist autocracy and there was a general good feeling when the initial revolution toppled Nicholas, but that was fairly replaced with fear and horror at the excesses of the Bolshevik revolution, the murder of the royal family and the overall oppression that followed.

      • According to Wikipedia, that’s not correct — Russia didn’t recognize the United States until 1803. They had previously refused to accept the credentials of Americans sent to Russia. Full diplomatic relations were established in 1809.

        What surprised me was that Morocco was apparently the very first country to recognize the United States.

        I had thought it was the Netherlands (after France, of course), and they were the first European country to recognize us in 1782. I had read a book about that a couple years ago, and my recollection is that Britain immediately retaliated against their holdings in the New World.

        • What surprised me was that Morocco was apparently the very first country to recognize the United States.

          These are very murky waters, and there’s even more to it. The rebels did a deal, getting a treaty in exchange for subventions. That was the very same system that was in place when the U.S. government welched some years later, high mindedly making out that the Barbary Corsairs were simply trying to extort tribute by raiding, as though it only started with that. However, those raids were simply the only enforcement mechanism for a treaty of that sort, one that suited the U.S.A. until it didn’t. All that guff about not one cent for tribute is masking perfidy. This is another area that Kenneth Roberts researched for his novels, that I profitably followed up.

  2. The T-5 torpedo here only carried about 1/3 the punch of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, but it would still have done tremendous damage. The American destroyers at this point were using training depth charges that contained a very minimal charges. I don’t think either the radar or the sonar of the time could necessarily tell the difference between a training depth charge and a lethal depth charge.

      • What was their range? If it was long enough, I suppose one could have been fired right up Government Cut and struck downtown Miami.

        • At least 6.5 miles. They were not intended for use against civilian targets, they were intended for use against surface ships. The target probably would have been USS Randolph, the Essex-class carrier that was the flagship of this ASW group. That would have taken out about 3,300 US Navy personnel, and probably guaranteed a US nuclear response, and we know where it goes from there.

    • I had no idea there was such a thing as a nuclear torpedo. I can understand the reasoning behind developing them, however. Carriers have been hard targets for submarines to sink, and in the 50s the Soviets likely had developed very little expertise in this area (especially compared to the U.S. and Great Britain).

      With standard torpedoes, you would have to get at least one solid hit and likely more than one to cripple or sink a carrier. It’s not unreasonable for the Soviets to believe they would have a difficult time getting off more than one shot against an American task force. But a torpedo with an atomic bomb would just have to get close to the carrier to have an excellent chance for a kill.

      It does sound like the U.S. Navy was virtually on a war footing at that time — actually dropping depth charges, even little ones seems like quite a hostile action. Even reacting with a conventional torpedo could easily have been enough to trigger a war.

  3. And he did it by maintaining his integrity and refusing to be pushed into acquiescing to groupthink. Thank God a USSR naval officer was allowed to think for himself that day.

  4. Thank you Jack–you have made my weekend with this story, even as the quantity of sanity in the world seems to be oozing (or rushing) down the drain. I shudder to think about this being a current Russian, Iranian, or North Korean sub.

  5. See, one person CAN make a difference…and history is replete with more examples.
    People are encouraged and emboldened by stories like these, and presently that is exactly what is needed as the tide of insane oppressive wokeism surges forth.

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