Join Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions! Subscribe Today!

The Times When a Single Person Averted a Nuclear War

Ever since we have amassed nuclear weapons all over the world there have been some hairy situations. There have been a depressing number of alarming mistakes surrounding nuclear weapons, including the time in 1981 when President Jimmy Carter once left the codes for launching nuclear weapons in the pocket of his suit jacket that was sent to the dry cleaners, in 1999 when President Clinton left a NATO meeting in such a hurry that he left the “nuclear football” behind, which is a briefcase holding means to quickly receive information and authorize a nuclear strike. There are also the disturbing number of times that whole nuclear weapons have been just sort of lost, and it is very sobering and unnerving to know that all of this has gone down. Then there are the harrowing incidents during which a full nuclear apocalypse was narrowly averted by chance due to one lone individual.

Our first unsung hero who most have not heard of but who we should thank is Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, who in 1962 was flotilla commander and second-in-command of the Soviet diesel powered, nuclear armed submarine B-59. In October of that year, his mission was patrolling the waters off Cuba, and this was right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was already at the brink. Things at the time were very tense, indeed, with a U.S. spy plane having been shot down, and another U2 plane had been lost in Soviet airspace. Things had reached a boiling point, and American Naval forces were scouring the waters off Cuba looking to engage any Soviet threat. And so in transpired that the American destroyer, the USS Beale, which was with a group of eleven other destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph, came across Arkhipov and his sub.

Even though they were technically in international waters at the time, the Americans nevertheless began dropping depth charges, but they were low yield practice charges designed not to destroy the Soviet submarine, but rather to force it to surface so that it could be identified. The USS Beale was soon joined by more destroyers from its group, and they proceeded to relentlessly bomb the hell out of the B-59 and its terrified crew with depth charges. In fact, the Soviet crew became convinced that all out war had started, and tried to contact their command to ask for further instructions, but their communications equipment had been damaged, they were too deep, and they were stuck there down in the dark depths with charges going off all around them rocking them about. As they huddled there thinking that the sub was to be a metal coffin for them and the world was ending, the three commanders aboard the B-59 came to the conclusion that the reason they could not reach anyone was that nuclear war had broken out.

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

The first in charge, Valentin Savitsky, made the call to prep their onboard nuclear torpedo for launch, the target being the American aircraft carrier USS Randolph. However, according to protocol, all three of the senior officers onboard the B-59 had to unanimously agree before a nuclear response could be launched, and so they took a vote. Captain Savitsky and the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov both concurred that they should launch, but Arkhipov was the one dissenting voice. The three had a heated argument about it, but Arkipov was eventually able to convince them not to go through with the launch, which would have vaporized the entire American fleet and likely triggered a nuclear war for real. The attack would have likely activated the Pentagon’s SIOP, or Single Integrated Operational Plan, which had an absurd 5,500 nuclear weapons aimed and primed to strike at strategic targets all over the place, which would have generated a response from the Soviets, and adios muchachos.

It is sobering to think that in this case, three sweaty men in a cramped sub being rocked by explosives and under duress basically had the fate of the world in their hands, and only one of them decided not to go down that route. Considering sub’s battery was critically low and the air-conditioning had failed, causing extreme heat and high levels of carbon dioxide inside the submarine, they surfaced to find that indeed nuclear war had not broken out, and they were allowed by the Americans to return to the Soviet Union. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an advisor for the John F. Kennedy administration, would later say of the incident, “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.” So yeah, thank you Arkhipov. I wish I could tell you that this was the only time something like this had ever happened, but unfortunately it is not.

In 1983, the Cold War was in full effect and the Americans and Soviets still had obscene numbers of nuclear missiles aimed at each other, manned by those with itchy trigger fingers. On 26 September 1983 in the early morning hours, a Soviet lieutenant colonel by the name of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was alone on duty during an overnight shift, monitoring the Soviet Union’s early-warning missile system, which was designed to track and warn of incoming nuclear warheads. It would have been a pretty boring detail typically, and he was tired from the long shift, his thoughts drifting and daydreaming, but on this morning, he was snapped out of his stupor by an alarm registered on the system. Blinking the drowsiness from his eyes he focused on the display and saw that everyone’s worst fear had happened. The Americans had launched against them. He would later say:

The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it. A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike.’ I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it. There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time; that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders – but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.

Indeed, he had full computer readouts to this effect, all undeniably showing that a nuclear attack was in progress, and the protocol for the situation called for him to report to his superiors immediately so that they could initiate a retaliatory strike, but he did not do this. It was a flagrant dereliction of duty, and the longer he waited the less effective a counterstrike would be, but he hesitated out of doubt and knowing that his next action would mean the fate of the world. He would say, “’I knew perfectly well that nobody would be able to correct my mistake if I had made one.” And so he waited there in the dim glow of the computer screen as it told him nuclear war had broken out and that missiles were already coming down. Something about it didn’t feel right to him, and he would explain:

There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those ‘checkpoints’. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances. Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov

He also felt that just five missiles didn’t make sense, as the U.S. attack would have been more decisive, an all-out onslaught. It would turn out that the whole thing had been a malfunction. Sunlight reflecting off of high-altitude clouds had confused the satellite system, which had made it malfunction and misread the data as incoming missiles. Although Petrov was not authorized to launch missiles himself, it is widely believed that with the strong data he had and time being of the essence, his report would have most certainly led to a nuclear strike against the United States, triggering World War III, and he has been recognized as having single-handedly averted catastrophe by disobeying his orders. Nuclear security expert Bruce G. Blair has said of the incident:

The Soviet Union as a system—not just the Kremlin, not just Andropov, not just the KGB—but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that happened on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in US–Soviet relations.

Petrov had even admitted that if it had been anyone else on duty that day the nuclear Armageddon would have certainly begun. Despite this, he received no award from the Soviet military, and he would retire early, but he would receive commendations and the World Citizen Award, and Dresden Peace Prize by other countries for the part he played in averting a catastrophe. These are very worrying instances that a lot of people are blissfully aware even happened at all, and they have amazingly been lost to history and sort of swept under the carpet. Yet, rest assured that the only reason the world hasn’t been destroyed can likely be attributed to these two guys who the whole thing just happened to catch on a good day.