It isn’t everyone who manages to literally save the world. Vasili Arkhipov did just that, and he did it so quietly that nobody in the West knew a thing about it until he was dead.
In 1962, Vasili Arkhipov was serving as the executive officer aboard the Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine B-59. On October 27, the B-59 was cornered in international waters by eleven US destroyers, which began dropping depth charges on what they presumed was a blockade runner headed for Cuba.
Cornered and left to assume that World War III had begun, the B-59′s captain and political officer decided to launch the nuclear-armed torpedo they carried for just such an eventuality. It goes without saying that the US would respond badly to a nuclear assault at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfortunately for the senior staff of the B-59, and fortunately for literally every other living thing on Earth, a nuclear launch required the assent of a third officer—Vasili Arkhipov.
Using a combination of logic and shouting, Arkhipov—who held the same rank as the B-59′s captain—persuaded his fellow officers to surface and return home. Reading about the incident in declassified files many years later, Robert McNamara said “we came very close. Closer than we knew at the time.” The Soviet files were only released in 2002, four years after Arkhipov’s death.
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