Today marks the 42nd installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the well-being of humanity. You can find the 41st part of this series here.
This week, our hero is Vasili Arkhipov–a Soviet naval officer who refused to allow a Soviet nuclear strike on a U.S. aircraft carrier during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Arkhipov’s actions likely prevented an all-out nuclear war, the consequences of which would have included the deaths of millions, if not billions, of innocent people, a collapse of many nation states and their economies, and an enormous amount of environmental damage. Aptly, the U.S. National Security Archive has dubbed Arkhipov a man who “saved the world.”
Vasili Arkhipov was born on January 30, 1926, to a peasant family in Staraya Kupavna – a small town on the outskirts of Moscow. After a typical public-school education, Arkhipov enrolled in the Pacific Higher Naval School – a facility that trained Soviet naval officers in 1942. Arkhipov first saw military action during the Soviet-Japanese War in August 1945, when he served aboard a minesweeper. In 1947, Arkhipov graduated from naval school and went on to serve on submarine vessels in the Black Sea and the Baltic.
In 1961, Arkhipov was appointed as the executive officer of the USSR’s new nuclear ballistic missile submarine (K-19). During its maiden voyage, the submarine’s nuclear cooling system developed a leak that threatened to cause the nuclear reactor to melt down. In the face of a potential mutiny, Arkhipov backed the captain and ordered the engineering crew to develop a technical solution to avoid a nuclear meltdown. The crew were forced to build an emergency coolant system on the fly. The solution required many of the men to work in high levels of radiation for extended periods of time, and although the engineers managed to save the ship and prevent a meltdown, the entire crew, including Arkhipov were irradiated. Due to exposure to high levels of radiation, all the members of the engineering crew died within a month. Yet that momentous event pales in comparison to what Arkhipov experienced the following year.
On October 1, 1962, Arkhipov was made commodore of a flotilla of four submarines that had been ordered to travel from Russia to Cuba. Arkhipov was also appointed sub-commander of the B-59 attack submarine that he was traveling on. The B-59 had twenty-two torpedoes, one of which was nuclear and possessed roughly the same destructive power as the nuclear bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Unknown to the crew of the four submarines, the United States implemented a naval blockade of Cuba on October 4 and told the Soviets that U.S. forces would drop depth charges (explosive warning shots) on any Soviet submarine in Cuban waters to force the vessels to surface. Due to lack of radio communications, Moscow was unable to relay that information to Arkhipov’s crew.
On October 27, a group of eleven U.S. Destroyers and an American aircraft carrier, the USS Randolph, located Arkhipov’s submarine off the coast of Cuba and began pummeling the submarine with signaling depth charges. Arkhipov’s submarine was too deep underwater to receive any radio traffic, and with each depth charge causing the submarine to shake uncontrollably, those onboard did not know whether a war had already broken out. On board the submarine, the air conditioning system had broken and temperatures in some sections of the ship reached over 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius). The regeneration of air supply worked poorly, and the rising levels of carbon dioxide caused many of the weary crew, who had already been traveling onboard the ship for almost four weeks, to faint from overheating.
During that strenuous situation, the captain of the submarine, Valentin Savitsky, believed that the American navy was firing bombs on their ship and decided that war between the two countries had already broken out. Savitsky ordered the nuclear-tipped torpedo to be readied and aimed at the USS Randolph. The political officer onboard, Ivan Maslennikov, agreed with the captain’s decision. Usually, Russian submarines armed with nuclear weapons only required the permission of the captain and the political officer in order to launch their nuclear torpedo. However, due to Arkhipov’s position as commodore, the captain was also required to gain Arkhipov’s approval.
Arkhipov refused to approve the launch of the nuclear torpedo and an intense argument broke out among three officers. Later Soviet intelligence reports quote the captain as saying, “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our navy.” However, Arkhipov refused to budge and argued that, as no orders had come from Moscow, such extreme measures would be ill-advised. Instead, he advised that the submarine should surface and contact the naval headquarters. Arkhipov was eventually successful in persuading the captain and, as the submarine rose to the surface, it was met by a U.S. destroyer which ordered it to immediately return to the Soviet Union.
As the American forces didn’t board the submarine or undertake any inspection, they were not aware that the submarine was armed with a nuclear torpedo. The U.S. navy, and indeed the wider public, only found out about the B-59’s nuclear capabilities and the full tale of Arkhipov’s actions in 2002, when the former belligerents met in Cuba for the 40th anniversary of the crisis. When discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arthur Schlesinger, an American historian and former advisor John F. Kennedy, stated that “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.”
Upon their return to Russia, the crew of the submarine were met with criticism from their superiors, as some officers viewed the act of surfacing as one of surrender. One admiral told Arkhipov “it would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship.” After the events of October 1962, Arkhipov continued his navy service. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1975 and became head of the Kirov Naval Academy. In 1982, he was promoted to vice admiral and retired a few years later. Arkhipov settled in a small town near Moscow and died on August 19, 1998 of kidney cancer that may have been caused by the radiation that he was exposed to while onboard the K-19 in 1961.
Had Arkhipov not been on that specific B-59 submarine that October in 1962 or had he given in to pressure from the other officers, the submarine’s nuclear torpedo would have vaporized the USS Randolph. That, notes Russian archivist Svetlana Savranskaya, would have started “a chain of inadvertent developments, which could have led to catastrophic consequences.” According to plans laid out by the Soviets and the United States, the likely first targets of a nuclear war would have been Moscow, London, airbases across the U.K. and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets” (i.e., civilian populations) across the world.
Arkhipov received little recognition during his lifetime, but to his wife Olga, Vasili was always a hero. In a 2012 PBS documentary titled The Man Who Saved the World, Olga Arkhipov said, “The man who prevented a nuclear war was a Russian submariner. His name was Vasili Arkhipov. I was proud and I am proud of my husband, always.” Thanks to Arkhipov, nuclear war was averted, and many lives were saved. For that reason, Vasili Arkhipov is our 42nd Hero of Progress.
Growing up in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, childhood did not lack its share of excitement. Sure, we did not have cartoons, toy guns or dolls, but we did get to march through local forests a few times a year wearing a gas mask and learning how to survive a sneak attack from the evil capitalists in West. The teachers didn’t tell us how a gas mask was to protect us from a mushroom cloud, but, as the saying goes, it’s the thought that counts. We even got to learn how to throw hand grenades, well, apples, really. It is all very simple: you take a bite of the apple, count to five, throw the apple and voilà… two seconds later you got yourself a dead capitalist. Those kinds of memories are tough to come by these days.
And so, it came as a bit of a surprise that when the cloud of radioactivity finally came, it came from our eternal and fraternal comrades in the East. You see, the Soviets, incompetent and immoral, managed to blow up one of their nuclear reactors and then did not tell anyone about it.
The design problems with Soviet nuclear reactors are now well known, but back in the 1980s, the Soviets still insisted that socialist nuclear technology was second to none. Similarly under-appreciated was the abysmal work ethic in the socialist bloc and the utter disregard for basic health, safety and environmental considerations that characterized most state-owned enterprises. What was never in doubt, however, was the power of socialist propaganda.
And so, when a comedy of errors – conflicting orders, a lack of coordination and communication, bad timing, etc. – resulted in the tragic explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the Soviets denied that anything was wrong.
The explosion of Reactor 4 happened on April 26, 1986. The Soviet media briefly acknowledged “an accident” at Chernobyl on April 29, but said little more. On April 30, the Soviet media covered preparations for the May Day celebrations and reported, falsely of course, that the United States suffered 2,300 nuclear accidents in 1979 alone. On May 1, the May Day parade celebrating the socialist worker went ahead throughout the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, where the socialist worker was being slowly poisoned by radiation.
Nothing was to be done to disturb the appearance of normalcy. And if a few people died … well, as Reg, the leader of the People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, tells his small group of assassins as he sends them to their deaths while remaining behind because of “a bad back,” “Solidarity, brother.”
In fact, as Robert McConnell wrote in National Review five years ago:
And so it was one May evening that my mother sat the little old me on a chair in the kitchen and told me that under no circumstances was I to drink the milk that our school provided to all the kids at lunch time. (Yes, we were all very progressive back then. The shops were empty and prisons full of political dissenters, but the milk was “free.”)
A friend of my parents, who worked in one of the nuclear fallout shelters that were sprinkled around my home town, noticed that the Geiger counters at the shelter were going apoplectic and phoned all of his friends that something strange was, so to speak, in the air. My mother surmised that radioactivity would make its way down the food chain and into our milk. (In all likelihood, she was mistaken, as not enough time had elapsed between the Chernobyl explosion and contaminated milk arriving in the school cafeteria.)
In any case, the next day I refused to down my glass of milk. An eagle-eyed teacher, a good and stout comrade, asked what the matter was. I told her that my mom told me not to drink milk. So she grabbed me by the shoulders, forced a glass of milk in my hand and watched as my little act of defiance disappeared down my terrified throat.
In the short run, the solidarity of the socialist bloc was preserved. In the medium run, however, the explosion at Chernobyl fatally undermined the Soviet reputation for scientific excellence and gave rise to an environmental consciousness movement in Eastern Europe that soon became an umbrella organization for most anti-communist forces in the region. A few years later, it would play a crucial part in the Velvet Revolution that consigned communism to the dustbin of history.
This piece originally published in CapX.
It’s been a busy time for nuclear weapons-related news—between President Trump’s alleged confusion about and denouncement of the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia on Friday, the White House’s subsequent assurances that the president understands the treaty, and North Korea’s missile launch test over the weekend.
The people behind the “Doomsday Clock,” have declared that the world is “two and a half minutes to midnight.” That’s the closest we’ve allegedly been to Armageddon since 1953, when both the U.S. and Soviet Union first possessed thermonuclear weapons.
A graph from HumanProgress.org might help put the current fearful commotion in perspective.
The U.S. has 4,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled and Russia has 4,490, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to arms reduction, as of their latest data update on January 31st of this year.
How dangerous is a single warhead? That varies. The most powerful one ever made, the Soviet Tsar Bomba, detonated in a remote area in 1961, created a fireball with a radius of nearly two miles, and a thermal radiation blast able to cause third-degree burns within a radius of almost 50 miles. North Korea’s most powerful warhead tested to date, in contrast, would cause third-degree burns within a radius of less than 2 miles. (If you’re curious about exactly how much of your hometown a warhead would destroy, there’s an app for that).
The graph shows that the U.S. and Russia still have enough warheads to wage a deadly nuclear conflict, but the situation is a far cry from how things stood during the Cold War. The U.S.S.R.’s number of warheads peaked at 40,149 in 1986; the U.S.’s peaked earlier, at 31,255 warheads in 1967. In other words, Russia’s stockpile of warheads today is 11% of what the U.S.S.R.’s was at its peak. The U.S.’s stockpile is 13% of what it was at its peak.
The tension between the two great nuclear powers is also far lower today than it was in the days of constant nuclear drills for schoolchildren accompanied by inane videos. As my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter put it, President Trump has repeatedly “angered advocates of a new Cold War against Russia,” through his eagerness to cooperate with Moscow. (However, he has also pointed out that the recent spat over New START might signal a change in the president’s attitude towards Russia).
No one can predict the future, but a little historical perspective suggests that the threat of a nuclear apocalypse is farther than the Doomsday Clock’s hands claim.
You can explore data on the other nuclear powers’ stockpiles (excluding secretive North Korea) here.
The first appeared in Cato at Liberty.
The day before yesterday was Memorial Day and an opportunity to remember U.S. soldiers who died in battle. Today, let us look at some positive trends in the world of international conflict. First, the end of the Cold War has led to a decline in overall violence. Interstate wars have by and large ceased to exist, although “internationalized internal conflicts,” such as the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine and Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen, are still with us. Civil wars are also rarer, in spite of the on-going conflicts in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Unfortunately, battle-related deaths are increasing. That said, fewer people die in battle than was the case in the last years of the Cold War.
While the United States has had a professional military since 1973 when the draft ended, many countries around the world maintain conscript militaries. The length of military conscription has been falling globally, indicating that a growing number of governments in the world think that military conflict is less rather than more likely in the future. The “intensity” of militarization has also declined. The number of military personnel per 1,000 people, for example, continues to decline.
And, as I have written in Reason before, humanity’s destructive potential–while still considerable–has been declining. In 1986, for example, the Soviet Union had over 40,000 nuclear warheads, while the United States’ nuclear arsenal peaked in 1967 at over 31,000 warheads. Last year, both countries’ nuclear arsenal contained less than 5,000 warheads each.
This article first appeared in Reason.