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The man who saved the world

delhi Updated: Oct 28, 2012 01:14 IST
Edward Wilson

If you were born before October 27, 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov saved your life. It was the most dangerous day in history. The Cuban missile crisis was in full flow. 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 submarine was one of four sent toward Cuba from the Arctic Circle as the crisis was developing. Each carried a “special weapon,” as their crews were told; only a few knew that that referred to a nuclear-tipped torpedo.

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 submarines, not hearing much from the Soviet high command, were trying to figure out what was going on by listening to American radio, and those reports were somewhat inflamed.





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“They weren’t getting communications from Moscow,” Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archive says. “They were listening to Miami radio stations. On Miami radio the stories are about impending US invasion of Cuba. On Miami radio it’s descriptions of the flotilla offshore. It’s descriptions of total mobilisation.”

The exhausted Savitsky, little helped by a breakdown of the submarine’s cooling system, 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.

If the B-59’s torpedo had vapourised the Randolf, the US would have retaliated in kind. Nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s SIOP, Single Integrated Operational Plan — a doomsday scenario that echoed Dr Strangelove’s orgiastic Gotterdammerung — would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-belligerent states such as Albania and China.

What would have happened to the US itself is uncertain. The very reason that Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba was because the Soviet Union lacked a credible long range ICBM deterrent against a possible US attack. It seems likely that America would have suffered far fewer casualties than its European allies.

Fifty years on, what lessons can be drawn from the Cuban missile crisis? One is that governments lose control in a crisis. The worst nightmare for US defence secretary Robert McNamara was the unauthorised launch of a nuclear weapon. McNamara ordered that PAL locks (Permissive Action Links) be fitted to all ICBMs. But when the PALs were installed, the Strategic Air Command had all the codes set to 00000000 so that the locks would not impede a quick launch in a crisis. Nuclear weapons security will always be a human issue — at all levels. On one occasion, Jimmy Carter, the sanest of US presidents, left nuclear launch codes in his suit when it was sent to the dry cleaner.

The risk of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers remains very real. In 1995, Russian early warning radar mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for a ballistic missile launched from an American submarine. An emergency signal was sent to President Yeltsin’s “Cheget”, the nuclear suitcase with launch codes. Yeltsin, presumably with vodka close at hand, had less than five minutes to make a decision on a retaliatory strike.

Most of all, the Cuban missile crisis showed that the weapons themselves are the problem. Britain is now in pole position to lead a “nuclear disarmament race”. In a 2009 letter to the Times, Field Marshal Lord Bramall and Generals Lord Ramsbotham and Sir Hugh Beach denounced Trident as “completely useless”. Ditching the system may be a no-brainer for the generals, but not for politicians afraid of a public opinion that equates nuclear weapons with vague notions of “being strong”. And yet getting rid of Trident would gift the Treasury a windfall of more than £25bn — enough to finance a million affordable homes.

Coming back to October 27, 1962, the decision not to start World War 3 was not taken in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the sweltering control room of a submarine. The launch of the B-59’s nuclear torpedo required the consent of all three senior officers aboard. The political officer joined the submarine commander in agreeing to a launch.

Arkhipov was alone in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov’s reputation was a key factor in the control room debate. The previous year, the young officer had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to save a submarine with an overheating reactor. That radiation dose eventually contributed to his death in 1998. So when we raise our glasses on October 27, we can only toast his memory. Thank you, Vasya.

GNS & NYT