Today we’re going to do things a little different. There’ll be no talk of finance, even by its broadest definition. Instead we’re going to celebrate one of my heroes. You may not know him, but you may well owe your life to him. All for his actions on a single day, fifty-five years ago today.
Let’s start with one of my favorite sayings:
“For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.”
This is the abridged version of a proverb: for want of a nail the horseshoe was lost, for want of the shoe the horse was lost, then the rider, then the battle, then the war, then the kingdom itself. All for the want of a single horseshoe nail. The point is that things that seem small and unimportant can have grave, far-reaching consequences.
And while I’m generally a glass-half-empty guy, I sometimes like to play with a corollary of the saying, one of my own invention:
“Thanks to a nail, the kingdom was saved.”
If you can lose a kingdom for want of a single nail, can’t a single nail also save it?
And that brings us to Vasili Arkhipov.
October 27, 1962 was likely the most dangerous day in history. It was certainly the most dangerous moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is probably the closest we humans have come to killing off our entire species.
The Soviets wanted to place ballistic nuclear missiles on Cuba, and the U.S. was rather against that.
On October 27, 1962:
- The two countries had been engaging in an ever-higher-stakes game of chicken for almost two weeks
- The U.S. had most of its Atlantic fleet surrounding the waters of Cuba in a “quarantine”, which is a nice way of saying “blockade” (fun fact: naval blockades are acts of war under international law)
- A U.S. spy plane flying over Cuba was shot down, killing the pilot
- The U.S. was considering an invasion of Cuba, not realizing that tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons were already in place on the island and would be used to repel any invasion
- The U.S. Strategic Air Command was at DEFCON 2 – one step away from “nuclear war is imminent”
Most historians regard the Cuban Missile Crisis as the closest we’ve come to a full-scale nuclear war.
However, though it seemed really bad at the time, it was actually far worse. A little drama was playing out in the waters east of Cuba.
The Soviets had sent four submarines toward Cuba just before the Crisis started. When they got close, they were told to stop outside of the quarantine zone.
The U.S. Navy was actively searching for any Soviet submarines. They located submarine B59 on (can you guess the date?) October 27, 1962.
Once a sub was located, it had few options. These were diesel submarines that could only last a little while underwater on battery power. They were also designed for much colder climes, so they got unbearably hot when submerged in the warm Caribbean waters.
The U.S. had state-of-the-art sub tracking technology, so once they located B59, there was little chance of losing it. On Kennedy’s order, the U.S. Navy started dropping “practice” depth charges (which had only a small amount of explosives). On a Soviet submarine. In international waters. With the two countries perilously close to war.
Since a submarine’s strength lies in its stealth, it (assumedly) poses no risk to a surface fleet once it’s been found. The U.S. Navy’s idea was to harass B59 until it was forced to surface and then to tell them to go home.
There was only one tiny little problem with the U.S. plans. While the U.S. had a huge advantage in ships and technology and had already done the hardest bit of locating the submarine, B59 had a trick up its sleeve.
B59 was armed with a nuclear torpedo. Yeah.
Let’s see what a nuclear torpedo can do:
Oh and it gets better. In addition to giving each of the four submarines a single nuclear torpedo, the Soviets had authorized the captain of each submarine to use the nuclear weapon on his own command. He only needed the consent of the political officer on board.
No approval was needed from Moscow. A submarine captain (and his political officer) had the ability and authority to launch the nuclear torpedo.
That makes for an exciting scene. B59’s captain had no update from Moscow for over a week. He had been monitoring Miami radio and knew war was a real possibility. Once he submerged, he lost even that source of updates.
After 5 hours of 110°F temperatures and bombardment by depth charges, and with his batteries running low, B59’s captain must’ve decided that war had been declared. He ordered the nuclear torpedo to be fired on the U.S. ships, and his political officer agreed.
What happened next?
Well, the nuclear torpedo vaporized an entire U.S. aircraft carrier battle group. In response, the U.S. ordered a full nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The Russians responded with a full nuclear attack on both the U.S. and the easier-to-reach targets in Europe (sorry London). Much of the world was destroyed, and the remaining bits died off during the lengthy nuclear winter.
Wait, that’s not what happened. There was one tiny additional factor in play. You see, the four submarine fleet needed a fleet commander. His name was Vasili Arkhipov, and, by chance, he was on board B59. Because he happened to be on board, the rules for use of B59’s nuclear weapon required his consent as well. Instead of requiring two votes for its use, B59 needed three.
And guess what? Vasili Arkhipov said no. There are no firsthand accounts of the argument that followed, but I suspect a clash where one guy thought WWIII had started and the other guy disagreed got pretty heated. Arkhipov had a reputation as a cool-headed decision maker, and despite the heat, the captain’s insistence, and the depth charges exploding all around them, he stood his ground. Without his vote, the nuclear torpedo could not be fired.
With its batteries almost exhausted and its plans to start a nuclear armageddon on hold, B59 surfaced, was greeted by the U.S. Navy, and started limping home. It was only 40 years later that the U.S. discovered that they had been dropping practice depth charges on a nuclear-armed submarine. Whoops.
If Vasili Arkhipov hadn’t been on B59, or if he hadn’t been such a cool customer, my money would’ve been on human extinction.
What Can We Learn From Vasili Arkhipov?
There are many lessons we can learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vasili Arkhipov’s role in it.
People Aren’t All That Clever
The comedy of errors in decision-making and communication that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the B59 drama weren’t unique to that time. Somewhere, someone is doing something just as stupid today.
Risk will always be with us, and we can’t blindly trust technology and leaders and systems to keep us safe. We’re always going to need people like Vasili Arkhipov.
Great Leaders Are Cool-Headed
Decisions can be really easy when you’re calm and comfortable. The B59 captain, if he composedly considered the facts, would have likely concluded that if the U.S. wanted him dead (i.e., war had broken out), he’d already be dead. It’s a little harder to stay cool in your fifth hour of 110°F heat in an iron coffin with explosions all around, but it’s even more important then.
Leadership can take many forms. Arkhipov’s wife described him as “shy and modest”, “kind and calm” – it doesn’t sound like he was a wildly charismatic rabble-rouser. But he had a spine of steel when it mattered most, and I’d like to see more leaders in his style.
A Single Person Can Make a Difference
Each of us could face a critical decision with far-reaching implications at some point in our lives. It takes courage to stand alone when the consensus is wrong, but the world may well be counting on us.
Don’t Expect Any Thanks
A final bitter lesson is that while we should all strive to do the right thing, don’t expect any thanks. You should do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
When the four submarine fleet returned to the Soviet Union, they were chastised for being discovered by the U.S. Navy. There is no record of Arkhipov being recognized for saving us from annihilation. His wife said he kept quiet about the event all his life.
In 2002, one of the B59 crew revealed to the world that they did indeed have a nuclear torpedo and only Arkhipov’s vote kept it from being used. The whole world (after saying, “Holy S***!”) realized they owed Arkhipov a huge debt of gratitude. Unfortunately, Arkhipov died in 1998.
So the next time you do something great and get no credit, keep things in perspective…
Thanks to a nail, the kingdom was saved.
On this day over half a century ago, one great man stayed calm in a crisis and made a decision that saved the world. He may be gone, but he’s not forgotten, and we owe him our thanks.
Spasibo, Vasili Arkhipov, and rest in peace.
I’ve been reading about the Cuban Missile Crisis most of my life, and about Vasili Arkhipov ever since his role became public. While many countless sources could be cited for the above, I believe all of the facts above are contained in the PBS video below, so I’ll cite it as my source. If you are a history nerd, or just more interested in this story, I encourage you to watch it.