On 27 October 1962, the commander of the Soviet submarine flotilla sent toward the Caribbean amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis, Captain Vasili Arkhipov, saved the lives of every man, woman, and child that was alive that day and who has since drawn a breath in the last 52 years. Had Valentin Savitsky, the captain of the submarine Arkhipov sailed aboard and also served as second-in-command, fired at the U.S.S. Randolph the nuclear-tipped torpedo he intended to launch the world would have descended into full-on nuclear warfare and been incinerated in short order.
It is a curious coincidence–why did the Soviet Navy make a flotilla commander also the XO of the B-59, the exact submarine that would have fired the first shot of the Third World War? How was it that this flotilla commander made a decision to effectively surrender rather than invite Armageddon?
The Source of Violence
Over the past month, I’ve been intrigued with the reactions to the Ben Affleck versus Bill Maher back-and-forth over religious violence:
Are we really so blind? Why are we asking about religious justifications for war rather than why do human beings feel the need to justify violence at all?
Violence is an essential condition to the fact that humans are mammals. All organisms on Earth can be divided into whether they fix carbon or not. Autotrophs have this capability; the most common mechanism to fix carbon being photosynthesis. All other organisms lack this capability, and heterotrophs must consume autotrophs or other heterotrophs to survive. Consuming other organisms is always a violent process, in which one organism is killed to nourish another.
For some reason, humanity alone seems to require justification for violence, this essential ingredient for continued survival. Why we feel the need to blame different cultures, economic and/or governmental systems, religions or other forms of organization for why humans commit violent acts? It isn’t human organization that causes violence; it is because we are organisms that cannot fix carbon.
The Mystery of Peace
Rather than debating how and why humans can act cruelly and mercilessly towards one another, a much more intriguing conundrum revolves around a powerful force that compels peace. I began this piece with Vasili Arkhipov saving billions of lives, but neglected to mention that his actions on 27 October 1962 were highly irrational. The U.S. naval blockade was enforced with destroyers dropping explosives to force the B-59 to surface:
If you were born before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov saved your life. It was the most dangerous day in history. An American spy plane had been shot down over Cuba while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace. As these dramas ratcheted tensions beyond breaking point, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear weapon.
The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that the depth charges were non-lethal “practice” rounds intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface. The Beale was joined by other US destroyers who piled in to pummel the submerged B-59 with more explosives. The exhausted Savitsky assumed that his submarine was doomed and that world war three had broken out. He ordered the B-59’s ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.
Captain Savitsky was trying to protect his crew, certain that striking back would prevent their certain deaths. From the perspective of this submarine and her crew under severe strain, how could Arkhipov countermand Savitsky?
Savitsky hadn’t counted on Arkhipov. As commander of the fleet, Arkhipov had the last veto. And although his men were against him, he insisted that they must not fire – and instead surrender.
It was a humiliating move – but one that saved the world. The Soviet submariners were forced to return to their native Russia, where they were given the opposite of a hero’s welcome.
Historian Thomas Blanton told the Sun: ‘What heroism, what duty, they fulfilled to go halfway across the world and come back, and survive.‘But in fact, one of the Russian admirals told the submariners; “It would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship.” Extraordinary.’
Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret bunker outside Moscow that monitored the Soviet Union’s early-warning satellite system, when the alarm bells went off shortly after midnight. One of the satellites signaled Moscow that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles at Russia.
Given the heightened tensions between the two countries — the alarm coincided with the beginning of provocative NATO military exercises and barely three weeks after the Russians shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space — Petrov could have been forgiven for believing the signal was accurate. The electronic maps flashing around him didn’t do anything to ease the stress of the moment.
But Petrov smelled a rat. “I had a funny feeling in my gut” that this was a false alarm. For one thing, the report indicated that only five missiles had been fired. Had the United States been launching an actual nuclear attack, he reasoned, ICBMs would be raining down on them.
“I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.” Petrov’s gut feeling was due in large part to his lack of faith in the Soviet early-warning system, which he subsequently described as “raw.” He reported it as a false alarm to his superiors, and hoped to hell he was right.
Of course he was right:
He waited. The minutes and seconds passed. Everything remained quiet — no missiles and no destruction. His gut feeling had been correct. Stanislav Petrov had prevented a worldwide nuclear war. He was a hero. Those around him congratulated him for his superb judgment. Later it was discovered that the false alarms had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ Molniya orbits.
On 26 September 1983 Petrov returned the favor and saved Arkhipov’s life…along with every other person on Earth. But he had to know the decision to save billions would have personal consequences:
Unfortunately for Petrov, he didn’t exactly receive a heroic reward from the former Soviet Union. Embarrassed by their own mistakes, and angry at Petrov for breaking military procedure, he was forced into an early retirement with a pension of just $200 USD a month. Petrov’s brave act was kept secret from the outside world until the publication of a book by one of Petrov’s fellow officers in 1998, who was there and witnessed his courage on that terrifying night.
The selflessness of these two Soviet military officers stands in stark contrast to the image I had of communist nations, especially their soldiers, during the Cold War. That contrast was no more visible than on 9 November 1989:
The East German border guards were primed for a fight…
…but in the end chose not to kill:
Twenty-five years have elapsed since 11/9, the day the Berlin Wall came down…with no shots fired. This was the triumph of peace, a force so strong the 1991 Soviet hardliner coup d’etat couldn’t stand up to a politician making a speech on top of a tank:
Thank you, Captain Arkhipov and Colonel Petrov, for showing us the way.