Vasili Arkhipov: the man who saved the world in 1962
November 5, 2014 10:36 AM   Subscribe

For 13 days in October 1962, the world held its breath while "the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba gambled with millions of lives to garner advantages for one country over another." One day before President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev reached apparent agreement today on a formula to end the crisis over Cuba, the nuclear doomsday clock was seconds away from midnight. Vasili Arkhipov, the Brigade Chief of Staff on submarine B-59, was one of three people who needed to approve the launching of a nuclear missile. When the USS Beale began to drop depth charges on the B-59 to force it to surface, not realizing B-59 was armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes. The B-59's Captain Valentin Savitsky and political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov thought this was signalling an all-out attack. Arkhipov disagreed, and in doing so prevented the sub from launching a nuclear missile that could have triggered mutually assured destruction.

The prior year, Arkhipov was deputy commander of the new Hotel-class ballistic missile submarine K-19, where he survived the radiation spread throughout the ship due to the jury-rigged cooling water system that successfully reduced the temperature in the reactor after the primary coolant system developed a major leak. He then helped to quell a potential mutiny, backing Captain First Rank Nikolai Zateyev, who retained control of the submarine.

Arkhipov's death in 1988 was attributed to radiation poisoning.
posted by filthy light thief (16 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
On one occasion, Jimmy Carter, the sanest of US presidents, left nuclear launch codes in his suit when it was sent to the dry cleaners.

Between this and the 00000000 default launch code, I feel like ebay is more secure than our nuclear arsenals in were in the 70s. (And probably now.)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:51 AM on November 5, 2014 [8 favorites]


Vasili Arkhipov was mentioned previously, in a post about yellowcake uranium.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:51 AM on November 5, 2014


Well, the US and the Soviets took different approaches to nuclear security. In the US, we built technological safeguards into the weapon systems. Sometimes over the opposition of the military (cf. the 0000 code thing, which was the Air Force's churlish response to a requirement to put the safeguards on), but that was where we put our faith.

The Soviets, for a variety of reasons that appear to be both practical and ideological, didn't go down the technological safeguard route. They used human safeguards, of which the presence of a political officer on nuclear-armed submarines was one.

(The Sovs weren't alone in this attitude, the British also took the people-over-machines approach, but without the political officers. The captain and XO on a British submarine could, at least until fairly recently, conduct a nuclear launch independently. The Brits put a lot of confidence in their officer class.)

Given that we didn't have a nuclear war, you can argue that both approaches were more or less successful at doing at least half of what they were designed to do. (The other half, of course, being to execute a launch when ordered.) But the Soviet system does seem to have produced more instances of one person standing between continued existence and Armageddon. How many times the technical systems used in the US averted catastrophes is probably unknowable.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:02 AM on November 5, 2014 [12 favorites]




Looks like a good time to start working on a Doomsday machine. I always believed Dr. Strangelove was weirdly persuasive. Time to get home and rewatch my DVD.
posted by indianbadger1 at 11:30 AM on November 5, 2014


Yeah there were at least 10 different ways nuclear war could have started during the crisis. The missile commander in Cuba who had free reign to launch and who thought an attack was already happening.. the American plane that got lost in Alaska and "invaded" Russia at the height of the crisis, etc.. It was happenstance a war didn't happen and honestly just chance it hasn't happened yet (see Command and Control). Things were out of control for both Kennedy and Khrushchev, events took on their own life, neither commander really knew what was happening. Only after the fact did the Whitehouse spin a story about coming eye to eye and the Russians blinked, total BS. Khrushchev was never committed to starting a war and was standing down long before the crisis moment, once he heard about the compromise of removing NATO nukes from Turkey.
posted by stbalbach at 11:32 AM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


While I wasn't alive in 1962, I was in 1983, and it sounds like that was a far scarier situation. You had KAL007, Stanislav Petrov, and capped with Able Archer 83. How are we alive?

See the documentary "1983: The brink of Apocalypse", starting with Part 1.
posted by MrGuilt at 11:40 AM on November 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


Schlosser's Command and Control makes a very good (and very well documented) case that there never really has been any significant 'control' of the arsenal. Largely, that we haven't been vaporized yet is only a result of a few very conscious individuals acting outside bureaucratic, policy, and legal avenues to do the right thing and...blind luck.

And due to recent declassification, I now know wtf was going on that one strangely frantic blackout/exercise night I remember from my cold war childhood at Bentwaters AFB: saber rattling with fully nuclear-armed F-4s. Christ on a bicycle...to boot, I had no idea (until this year) that I could have basically thrown a rock from my back yard and hit the WSA. I think some enterprising cold war historian ought to capture oral histories from military brats of the era. I don't know a one of us who wasn't scared shitless by what we overheard at the rager cocktail parties of 1970s officers.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:52 AM on November 5, 2014 [10 favorites]


in doing so prevented the sub from launching a nuclear missile that could have triggered mutually assured destruction.

I wonder if it would have been mutually assured destruction. I recall reading that at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis there was no actual "missile gap" between the two countries, and that US warheads outnumbered Russian warheads by something like 100 to 1.

I'm having a hard time pinning down how many missile the Russians had deployed in Cuba by October 1962, but it couldn't have been enough to totally destroy the US, or even the entire US East Coast.
posted by Nevin at 12:12 PM on November 5, 2014


//I think some enterprising cold war historian ought to capture oral histories from military brats of the era. I don't know a one of us who wasn't scared shitless by what we overheard at the rager cocktail parties of 1970s officers.//

I grew up on SAC Bases through the 70s and I don't remember ever being afraid. Maybe my parents shielded me, maybe I was just a happy go lucky kid that never gave any thought to what my dad was doing at work. Looking back, I should have been scared shitless. I wish was Dad was still around - I never did get the stories from him before he died in 2000.
posted by COD at 12:50 PM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's hard to say exactly what would have happened if the sub had launched the torpedo. The White House and the Kremlin had a teletype link, and neither side really wanted war, so there would have been an opportunity to de-escalate before a US retaliatory launch, but it's hard to say whether the Soviet commanders in Cuba would have gone ahead and launched their missiles against the East Coast without explicit orders, if they took the offshore detonation as a sign that war was imminent. (What, exactly, their standing orders were would be interesting to know; I've never read anything about them.) So that would have been the real risk, I think: not so much an intentional nuclear war but one begun unintentionally due to the Soviet delegation of authority. Once you start lobbing megaton warheads around at capitol cities, it's pretty much game over.

I'm having a hard time pinning down how many missile the Russians had deployed in Cuba by October 1962, but it couldn't have been enough to totally destroy the US, or even the entire US East Coast.

The Soviets had planned to deploy both the SS-4/R-12 "Sandal" and SS-5/R-14 "Skean" missiles to Cuba; although I don't know if they ever got the R-14s emplaced, they did have the R-12s set up and that was what triggered the "crisis". (WP says they had 42 launchers and 45 nuclear weapons, but some of those weapons may have been designed for bomber delivery.) Washington, DC is just within the R-12 range limit. So the threat—at least to the southeast US and Gulf coast—was real.

Giving everyone involved the maximum benefit of the doubt, I think the Soviets saw the missiles as defensive—to discourage an invasion of Cuba—as well as equivalent to similarly-ranged missiles in Turkey and Germany. But what I think they didn't consider (or disregarded) was the effect that the weapons had on core assumptions of the US strategic posture.

Had the weapons remained in Cuba, the US would have had to change its strategic posture to deal with the threat of a first strike on just a few minutes' notice, rather than the tens of minutes of an ICBM attack or the hours of an over-the-pole bomber attack. In other words, we would have had to do what the Soviets did, and delegate authority down the chain of command.

The outcome that occurred—removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba and US missiles from Turkey—is probably the best-possible one, or very close to it, since it removed from both sides some of the pressure to be able to launch a retaliatory strike after a low-warning decapitation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:15 PM on November 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


Schlosser's Command and Control makes a very good (and very well documented) case that there never really has been any significant 'control' of the arsenal.
There's a fascinating chapter in "The Strategy of Conflict" by Thomas Schelling about the threat of accidental war.

What it says is: It's never rational to intentionally launch the first nuclear attack, as mutually assured destruction is inevitable. If you say "move those missiles out of Cuba or we'll launch at you tomorrow" there's no way to prove you'll go through with it. Triggering mutually assured destruction intentionally won't be any more rational tomorrow than it is today.

But the threat of unintentional, accidental war is easy to prove - these articles are the proof of it. You say "as long as those missiles are in Cuba we'll be at high alert" and make sure the Russians know that means an accidental war could happen very easily. Just look at this list of mishaps that could have triggered nuclear war - see how many of them say "Cuban Missile Crisis". Now that is a credible threat.

So having shitty control and lots of accidents is a desirable feature for a nuclear arsenal.
posted by Mike1024 at 1:41 PM on November 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


It's never rational to intentionally launch the first nuclear attack, as mutually assured destruction is inevitable.

Well, this depends on certain assumptions about the other side. There were people in the 50s who thought you could "win" nuclear war via a first strike with bombers that hit the opposing side's bombers on the ground. As a countermeasure to this, the "DEW Line" (among other things) was built specifically to give US bombers time to get off the ground.

There was a period just after the introduction of ICBMs when there seemed to be a similar first-strike advantage. If you have ICBMs, and your enemy has bombers, even if they have early-warning radar you could still kill the bombers on the ground with enough missiles. All they'd have left are their airborne alert units, which you might feasibly think you can kill on the way in. It might look like a reasonable enough thing to try. This particular scenario spooked US planners enough in the late 50s that they had a number of crash ABM programs, as well as the development of hardened ICBMs of our own.

I can only imagine that at various times the Soviets had their own fears about US first-strike advantages, particular related to submarines or stealth bombers, both areas where we had an edge at times. Had the Cold War not ended when it did, both sides would probably have moved away from hardened-silo launched missiles and towards mobile systems, because the survivability of silos against a first strike was becoming questionable.

Mutually assured destruction was not a static posture, but a sort of insane ballet with a dangerous give-and-take between both sides. In retrospect, it would have been far better if East and West had just accepted MAD in the 50s and stopped pushing at each other, but that is not really how people work.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:15 PM on November 5, 2014 [6 favorites]


Just look at this list of mishaps that could have triggered nuclear war...

Yes. #17 is my 'saber rattling with fully nuclear-armed F-4s'.
posted by j_curiouser at 3:06 PM on November 5, 2014


The White House and the Kremlin had a teletype link

Not during the Cuban Missle Crisis. That came about because of the crisis, and the realization that sending messages to embassies, doubly so third party embassies, was far too slow.

So, they created the Washinton-Moscow Direct Communication Link . Originally, it was a teletype. It shifted to faxes in the late '80s, and to an email system a few years back.

Both sides send in their native languages, and count on translators at the remote end.

I have heard that the operators who constantly run tests often end up becoming close friends. I hope that's true.
posted by eriko at 4:23 PM on November 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


I wonder if it would have been mutually assured destruction. I recall reading that at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis there was no actual "missile gap" between the two countries, and that US warheads outnumbered Russian warheads by something like 100 to 1.

Pat Frank's novel Alas, Babylon was published just a couple of years before the Cuban Missile Crisis and postulates the effects of a full-scale exchange as felt by the residents of a small town in Florida.

It was supposedly scary when it was published and contains some memorable images (for example, a character who scavenges jewelry from the ruins of a nuked city suffering because the metal is radioactive), but reading it in the '80s, I was struck by how optimistic the book seemed, in that nuclear was was portrayed as devastating but survivable.
posted by Gelatin at 5:52 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


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