The Man Who Stopped the Doomsday Clock

Nuclear Explosion

Over here at The Grand Inquisitor towers we tend to have a rather sardonic take on world affairs. Human history is essentially the history of manipulation, exploitation and violence. Amid the cast of murderers, bandits, despots and slaves who have thus far constituted much of the human race, there hasn’t been a hell of a lot of people who’ve really been worth celebrating. If you had to divide humanity into two, broad categories, the only honest labels you could apply would be “evil” or “mediocre”. Or bullies and their victims, if you prefer. Genuine heroes are about as commonplace as Methodist Christians in South Waziristan. Every now and then, however, you stumble across a figure who really is quite commendable. The handful who actually wrote a decent book or produced some worthwhile music, maybe. Or take the subject of today’s article, Vasiliy Alexandrovich Arkhipov, who pretty much saved the entire planet from apocalyptic destruction, Superman style. Normally, world saving scenarios just don’t take place outside of comic books. But back in October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis,  with the doomsday clock just seconds to midnight, something like a comic book scenario actually did take place. The funny thing is, very few people appreciate just how close us human beings came to wiping ourselves out, or that a guy called Vasiliy Andropov saved the world.

Conventional wisdom has it that John F. Kennedy was the hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The straight shootin’ sheriff who faced down those dastardly Rooskies with a steely determination, to make the world safe for democracy, freedom and apple pie. Right? Well, a close examination of the actual events would reveal that Kennedy did as much to precipitate the Crisis as any of the major players. In fact, he pursued an insanely reckless policy of total abnegation, refusing to back down or compromise even as the world approached the brink of destruction. How did it come to this?

Kennedy was elected to power at a time when Cold War paranoia had reached its zenith. Just a few months earlier, outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower had completed negotiations to construct a series of nuclear missile bases within the borders of Turkey, a friend and ally of the US. The bases were armed with a stockpile of Jupiter missiles. Intercontinental, intermediate range and armed with nuclear warheads . Effectively, the US now had nuclear missiles deployed and ready to launch right on the Soviet Union’s border, drastically increasing US first strike capabilities and hence, the range of US power.

Quite understandably, the Soviet government, then under Nikita Khrushchev, found the presence of US nuclear missiles just over the border rather perturbing. Steps would have to be taken to equalise the balance of world power. The solution was to be found in Cuba.

Cuba, a tiny island situated just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, had been the subject of an extreme level of paranoia on the part of the US, ever since Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution in early 1959. Fearing that the example of the revolution might spread to other Latin American states (and hence – potentially lesson US influence in the region) the CIA initiated a plot to overthrow Castro’s government. And one of Kennedy’s first foreign policy decisions upon coming to power in 1961 was to initiate Operation Mongoose – a sustained US sponsored terrorist campaign, waged largely against Cuba’s civilian population, aimed at removing Castro from power. The campaign was carried on sporadically under various guises for the next four decades.

By September of 1962, US Congress had passed a resolution authorising the use of military force against Cuba, if “American interests were threatened”. Furthermore, plans were announced for US military exercises in the Caribbean. Castro plausibly assumed that a US invasion of Cuba was imminent. Cuba, in effect, had been totally isolated from the international community by the enforcement of trade embargoes by an irrationally hostile US. Castro had little option but to obtain support from the only avenue open to him: the Soviet Union.

On October 14, 1962, US reconnaissance aircraft observed the construction of Soviet missile bases in Cuba. In fact, Castro and Khrushchev had arrived at a secret agreement several weeks earlier, and Soviet nuclear tipped missiles had already been stockpiled in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was underway.

Initially, the consensus among the US Joint Chiefs of Staff was unanimous. Kennedy was advised to launch a full scale military invasion of Cuba, with the aim of removing the missiles and bringing the balance of power firmly back into the sphere of the US. Remarkably, none of the Joint Chiefs of Staff appeared to consider the possibility of Soviet retaliation for such aggression particularly likely. To give Kennedy his due in this instance, he was sensible enough to recognise that this was potentially a colossal misjudgement. The US instead settled for a naval blockade of Cuba, refusing to allow Soviet ships access to the island.

As the crisis deepened, with the US and Soviet Union reaching a potentially fatal nuclear stalemate, it’s interesting to note the course of diplomacy taken by both sides. At no point did the US ever consider a fair trade-off on equitable terms, which would have involved either allowing the Soviet Union to have its missile bases (which, after all, would be a fair counterpoint to US missile bases in Turkey – viewed from the standpoint of a neutral observer) or preferably, the removal of missile bases from Turkey, in exchange for the removal of missile bases in Cuba.  In fact, the mood on the part of the White House appears to have been very much one of resignation. An invasion of Cuba and the inevitable retaliation would become necessary, as if preserving the world’s balance of power in favour of the US was a more important consideration than avoiding a nuclear holocaust.

When the crisis finally was resolved, the US only agreed to remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey in secrecy. The Soviet Union was required to disarm in a public show of backing down – an admission of “defeat” – involving a drastic loss of face in the international community. Kennedy was allowed to emerge from the situation as a hero, with his reputation as a steely, capable crisis manager assured. But in fact, it was Khrushchev who had acted with greater consideration, placing the world’s safety before his own pride and his nation’s international standing, by agreeing to back down in public. Whatever the faults of Khrushchev’s leadership and the Soviet regime he was a part of, this is a notion that has been criminally overlooked by history.

By October 28, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis, described as “the most dangerous moment in human history” by historian Arthur Schlesinger, was over. But it was not until 2002, when declassified Soviet documents revealed the full extent of the crisis, that the world at large learned about another drama that was taking place during the negotiations, of such significance that it renders the showdown between Kennedy and Khrushchev almost ancillary to the whole affair.

During the naval blockade, US Destroyers had detected a Soviet submarine prowling along the boundary line. Apparently unaware that the submarine was loaded with nuclear tipped ballistic missiles, the Destroyers began dropping signal depth charges in an effort to get the sub to surface.  Only the charges were of a heavier gauge than generally expected, and were exploding with force directly adjacent to the submarine.  The crew believed themselves to be under attack. Devoid of communication with the outside world, they assumed that war between the US and the Soviet Union had already broken out on the surface.

With temperatures within the confined space of the sub rising to an intolerable 50 °C, and the threat of destruction apparently imminent, tensions were understandably running high. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, began to freak out. According to intelligence reports, he made the following comments:

“There may be a war raging up there and we are trapped here turning somersaults! We are going to hit them hard. We shall die ourselves, sink them all but not stain the navy’s honor!”

Savitsky ordered a nuclear missile to be armed and prepared for launch, which he was apparently authorised to do so, under the threat of war. It really goes without saying, that if Savitsky had succeeded in launching that missile, it would have triggered a nuclear exchange that would’ve obliterated most of the world in a nuclear holocaust of apocalyptic proportions.

Thankfully for pretty much everybody on the entire planet today, Savitsky’s second in command, Vasiliy Arkhipov, was made from considerably sterner stuff than his captain. The unflappable deputy was somehow able to calm Savitsky down, persuade him to disarm the missile, and raise the submarine to the surface. Arkhipov’s intervention had saved the world from almost certain disaster.

By the time this story became public knowledge in 2002, Arkhipov had already been dead for three years. In fact, we hardly know anything about the guy at all; whether he was gentlemanly patron of the arts and sciences, or whether he tortured kittens for kicks in his spare time.

So there you have it. Possibly the greatest hero in the history of the world, and he died in anonymity. In fact, to this day, surprisingly few people know just how close the world came to nuclear obliteration, or the name of the man who prevented it from happening.

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3 Responses to The Man Who Stopped the Doomsday Clock

  1. Daniel(Milanista) says:

    Good write up, as always may I say.
    There’s a similiar passage in Noam Chomsky’s ‘Hegemony Or Survival’ which is where I first heard Arkhipov’s name. It’s really shocking that these kind of things aren’t taught at school.

  2. KIRK PALMER says:

    Great Read.

  3. H says:

    Disagree. Had the US publicly removed their nuclear weapons from Turkey, they would have been seen by the international community to cave in to physical threat. For one half of the nuclear armed world to do that would have been an extraordinary show of weakness.

    The USSR did not face such a choice when the US installed nuclear weapons in Turkey. The US was not trying to threaten them into a specific action (and if it was, then it failed), whereas it seems it was the USSR’s intent to negotiate the removal of those weapons with their move in Cuba (a specific action).

    You cannot show weakness in the face of force if you want to win, or even survive, the long game. Kennedy played it just right, as, you might say, did the Russians.

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