I wanted to take a moment to highlight that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, while under bombardment by depth charges, the captain of the Soviet Submarine B-59, exhausted and not understanding that the US was trying to get him to surface, not sink him, ordered one of his nuclear armed torpedoes be made ready to fire on the USS Randolph. Captain Savitsky was, fortunately, overruled by the Soviet Submarine Fleet Commander, Captain Vasili Arkhipov, refused to assent to firing the torpedo. Had he not done so the nuclear attack on the USS Randolph, which was leading the US Naval force, would have likely triggered the Single Integrated Operational Plan; America’s strategic plan for responding to a nuclear attack. Had this happened World War III would have begun and lasted only until the nuclear weapons stopped detonating…
I bring this up to remind everyone what others have done all day: nuclear weapons are meant as a deterrent and the stability of the global system has depended on all parties with nuclear weapons doing everything they can to not use them. Had Captain Savitsky – tired, overheated, stressed out from the nature and long hours of his operational assignment below the waters of Cuba – fired his nuclear armed torpedo he would not have been acting on orders from the Kremlin. The submarine fleet on station had been out of touch with their higher headquarters for days, but nuclear war would have started any way. Not because the Soviet leadership decided it was their only viable option left (not that that would have been a good assessment of the situation), but because of the misreading of the tactical environment by one worn out submarine commander. Captain Arkhipov based part of his decision to not authorize the use of a nuclear armed torpedo on the fact that they’d been out of touch with their superiors and had exceedingly limited intelligence and information on what was actually happening on the surface above them.
We don’t always realize that for all the grand strategies and carefully crafted policies that events are all too often out of the control of the people we think are in charge and that we’ve entrusted with the responsibility to make the hard decisions. All too often they are in the hands of the tired, stressed men and women – in diplomatic, military, and other service – at the sharp end just trying to make the best decision out of a range of bad options with incomplete information.
For more on Vice Admiral Arkhipov, the man who saved the world, here’s the link to the documentary about what occurred on Submarine B-59. And the embedded video below.
* Official Photo of Vice Admiral Arkhipov found here.