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You (and Almost Everyone You Know) Owe Your Life to This Man.

Temperament matters.

Especially when nuclear weapons are involved and you don’t—you can’t—know what the enemy is up to, and you’re scared. Then it helps (it helps a lot) to be calm.

The world owes an enormous debt to a quiet, steady Russian naval officer who probably saved my life. And yours. And everyone you know. Even those of you who weren’t yet born. I want to tell his story…

It’s October 1962, the height of the Cuban missile crisis, and there’s a Soviet submarine in the Caribbean that’s been spotted by the American Navy. President Kennedy has blockaded Cuba. No sea traffic is permitted through.

Photograph by NY Daily News Archive, Getty
Photograph by NY Daily News Archive, Getty

The sub is hiding in the ocean, and the Americans are dropping depth charges left and right of the hull. Inside, the sub is rocking, shaking with each new explosion. What the Americans don’t know is that this sub has a tactical nuclear torpedo on board, available to launch, and that the Russian captain is asking himself, Shall I fire?

This actually happened.

The Russian in question, an exhausted, nervous submarine commander named Valentin Savitsky, decided to do it. He ordered the nuclear-tipped missile readied. His second in command approved the order. Moscow hadn’t communicated with its sub for days. Eleven U.S. Navy ships were nearby, all possible targets. The nuke on this missile had roughly the power of the bomb at Hiroshima.

“We’re gonna blast them now!”

Temperatures in the submarine had climbed above 100 degrees. The air-conditioning system was broken, and the ship couldn’t surface without being exposed. The captain felt doomed. Vadim Orlov, an intelligence officer who was there, remembers a particularly loud blast: “The Americans hit us with something stronger than the grenades—apparently with a practice depth bomb,” he wrote later. “We thought, That’s it, the end.” And that’s when, he says, the Soviet captain shouted, “Maybe the war has already started up there … We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.”

Had Savitsky launched his torpedo, had he vaporized a U.S. destroyer or aircraft carrier, the U.S. would probably have responded with nuclear-depth charges, “thus,” wrote Russian archivist Svetlana Savranskaya, understating wildly, “starting a chain of inadvertent developments, which could have led to catastrophic consequences.”

But it didn’t happen, because that’s when Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov steps into the story.

Photo courtesy of M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya
Photo courtesy of M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya

He was 34 at the time. Good looking, with a full head of hair and something like a spit curl dangling over his forehead. He was Savitsky’s equal, the flotilla commander responsible for three Russian subs on this secret mission to Cuba—and he is maybe one of the quietest, most unsung heroes of modern times.

What he said to Savitsky we will never know, not exactly. But, says Thomas Blanton, the former director of the nongovernmental National Security Archive, simply put, this “guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”

Arkhipov, described by his wife as a modest, soft-spoken man, simply talked Savitsky down.

The exact details are controversial. The way it’s usually told is that each of the three Soviet submarine captains in the ocean around Cuba had the power to launch a nuclear torpedo if—and only if—he had the consent of all three senior officers on board. On his sub, Savitsky gave the order and got one supporting vote, but Arkhipov balked. He wouldn’t go along.

He argued that this was not an attack.

The official Soviet debriefs are still secret, but a Russian reporter, Alexander Mozgovoi, an American writer, and eyewitness testimony from intelligence officer Orlov suggest that Arkhipov told the captain that the ship was not in danger. It was being asked to surface. Dropping depth charges left then right, noisy but always off target—those are signals, Arkhipov argued. They say, We know you’re there. Identify yourselves. Come up and talk. We intend no harm.

What’s Happening?

The Russian crew couldn’t tell what was going on above them: They’d gone silent well before the crisis began. Their original orders were to go directly to Cuba, but then, without explanation, they’d been ordered to stop and wait in the Caribbean. Orlov, who had lived in America, heard from American radio stations that Russia had secretly brought missiles to the island, that Cuba had shot down a U.S. spy plane, that President Kennedy had ordered the U.S. Navy to surround the island and let no one pass through. When Americans had spotted the sub, Savitsky had ordered it to drop deeper into the ocean, to get out of sight—but that had cut them off. They couldn’t hear (and didn’t trust) U.S. media. For all they knew, the war had already begun

We don’t know how long they argued. We do know that the nuclear weapons the Russians carried (each ship had just one, with a special guard who stayed with it, day and night) were to be used only if Russia itself had been attacked. Or if attack was imminent. Savitsky felt he had the right to fire first. Official Russian accounts insist he needed a direct order from Moscow, but Archipov’s wife Olga says there was a confrontation.

She and Ryurik Ketov, the gold-toothed captain of a nearby Russian sub, both heard the story directly from Vasili. Both believe him and say so in this PBS documentary. Some scenes are dramatized, but listen to what they say …

As the drama unfolded, Kennedy worried that the Russians would mistake depth charges for an attack. When his defense secretary said the U.S. was dropping “grenade”-size signals over the subs, the president winced. His brother Robert Kennedy later said that talk of depth charges “were the time of greatest worry to the President. His hand went up to his face [and] he closed his fist.”

Video Still From ''Missile Crisis: The Man Who Saved the World''
Video Still From the PBS documentary, “Missile Crisis: The Man Who Saved the World.

The Russian command, for its part, had no idea how tough it was inside those subs. Anatoly Andreev, a crew member on a different, nearby sub, kept a journal, a continuing letter to his wife, that described what it was like:

For the last four days, they didn’t even let us come up to the periscope depth … My head is bursting from the stuffy air. … Today three sailors fainted from overheating again … The regeneration of air works poorly, the carbon dioxide content [is] rising, and the electric power reserves are dropping. Those who are free from their shifts, are sitting immobile, staring at one spot. … Temperature in the sections is above 50 [122ºF].

The debate between the captain and Arkhipov took place in an old, diesel-powered submarine designed for Arctic travel but stuck in a climate that was close to unendurable. And yet, Arkhipov kept his cool. After their confrontation, the missile was not readied for firing. Instead, the Russian sub rose to the surface, where it was met by a U.S. destroyer. The Americans didn’t board. There were no inspections, so the U.S. Navy had no idea that there were nuclear torpedos on those subs—and wouldn’t know for around 50 years, when the former belligerents met at a 50th reunion. Instead, the Russians turned away from Cuba and headed north, back to Russia.

Photograph courtesy of U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Record Group 428, Item 428-N-711199
Photograph courtesy of U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Record Group 428, Item 428-N-711199

Looking back, it all came down to Arkhipov. Everyone agrees that he’s the guy who stopped the captain. He’s the one who stood in the way.

He was, as best as we can tell, not punished by the Soviets. He was later promoted. Reporter Alexander Mozgovoi describes how the Soviet Navy conducted a formal review and how the man in charge, Marshal Grachko, when told about conditions on those ships, “removed his glasses and hit them against the table in fury, breaking them into small pieces, and abruptly leaving the room after that.”

Photo courtesy of M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya
Photo courtesy of M. Yarovskaya and A. Labunskaya

How Arkhipov (that’s him up above) managed to keep his temper in all that heat, how he managed to persuade his frantic colleague, we can’t say, but it helps to know that Arkhipov was already a Soviet hero. A year earlier he’d been on another Soviet sub, the K-19, when the coolant system failed and the onboard nuclear reactor was in danger of meltdown. With no backup system, the captain ordered the crew to jerry-rig a repair, and Arkhipov, among others, got exposed to high levels of radiation. Twenty-two crew members died from radiation sickness over the next two years. Arkhipov wouldn’t die until 1998, but it would be from kidney cancer, brought on, it’s said, by exposure.

Nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous. Handling them, using them, not using them, requires caution, care. Living as we do now with North Korea, Pakistani generals, jihadists, and who knows who’ll be the next U.S. president, the world is very, very lucky that at one critical moment, someone calm enough, careful enough, and cool enough was there to say no.

Thanks to Alex Wellerstein, author of the spectacular blog Restricted Data, for his help guiding me to source material on this subject.

96 thoughts on “You (and Almost Everyone You Know) Owe Your Life to This Man.

  1. Bravo, Robert!

    An excellent article… and a cautionary tale, especially for those “bomb ’em back to the stone age” advocates among us. As if we are the only ones with bombs.

  2. Dad was a senior US Navy officer who on USN Destroyers for some years hunted Soviet subs.
    And knowing both him and my Mother, and guessing that other people can have similar character, I accept that at face vale — “Official Russian accounts insist he needed a direct order from Moscow, but Archipov’s wife Olga says there was a confrontation. She and Ryurik Ketov, the gold-toothed captain of a nearby Russian sub, both heard the story directly from Vasili. Both believe him and say so in this PBS documentary.”

    1. FSW– I wondered myself. It seems strange — deeply strange — that the Soviets would have left such a monstrously important decision in the hands of field commanders. But apparently they did. And as nuclear weapons get downsized into nuclear arms, and then tactical nuclear devices, as the technology makes terrible things smaller and smaller, I hope the command system keeps the decisions and the decision-makers big and important, and most of all – steady. I don’t know who’s minding the store in Belgium at those nuclear plants, or who’s making decisions in those places I mention, but I’m getting more and more nervous.

      1. The state of communications in 1961 was amazingly primitive by our standards, and “distributed contingency” was necessary (and continues to the present day). The worry was (and is) that the central command would get knocked out and have no way to communicate, providing a single point of failure to the enemy (think that point on the death star). The 60’s were a turning point in having direct radio access at all times, but even now, with secure and redundant communications satellites, some places (under water for instance) don’t allow consistent effective contact. There’s a free military book about communications in vietnam that illustrates a lot of the realities of military communication, see http://history.army.mil/html/books/091/91-12/index.html

        1. Communications not much better in the 1980s under Reagan. Our big invasion of Grenada went well except when some troopers were met with resistance at the airfield. Our Navy was sitting off shore but the airborne could not communicate with the ships for artillery support. A platoon leader had to call the Pentagon on a public phone with his American Express card to be linked into the ships just a few miles away. Oh, we won the war.

          1. This wasn’t a war, it was an invasion of a sovereign nation by the U.S. We can assume Reagan did it to prove he was tough. Once again, we overthrew an elected official because of “communism.”

            Typically, we attacked a country with a tiny fraction of the military power we had. Quite a “win.”

        1. Schlosser book looks great – can’t believe I hadn’t run across it before. thanks for the recommendation.

      2. Today’s technology now allow submarines from both sides to communicate regardless of depth of their nuclear submarines. But if communications are cutoff then the “DEAD MAN’S HAND” hardwired circuit command is automatically activated without human intervention. The same goes for our land-based counterparts in Mother Russia. No one can stop it. No one.

        1. Of all the comments, not a single one has mentioned almighty God. And Satan.
          Would God allow his world to be destroyed…or made un-liveable?
          Scripture says NO. Psalm 37:29
          And even though we have our share of problems in the world right now [ Revelation 12:12]
          none will be ‘ world ending’.

          1. Now that this road has been gone down: taking only and precisely the specific question of allowing Earth to be destroyed, Yes, he will allow it ti be destroyed – depending on how “allow” is meant – whether it solely means allowing others to do so, or includes him causing it himself. Or maybe I’m reading everything wrong since I’m not a church goer: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”

          2. Sorry, Gary, I’m not willing to bet the future of my children and indeed the rest of the world on your reading of scripture. I’ve seen this argument used to support why global warming doesn’t exist, why we should kill every non-Christian on earth, why it’s ok to use nuclear weapons, and so on….

            It’s freakin’ dangerous and you should recuse yourself from every discussion outside the doors of your megachurch.

      3. During the Cuban Missile Crisis Soviet commanders in Cuba had “launch on warning” orders, meaning that if the United States initiated an attack on Cuba they had permission to launch nuclear missiles in retaliation.

        General Curtis LeMay had urged President Kennedy to order the Air Force to bomb Soviet missile installations. Kennedy had received two conflicting messages from the Kremlin. The first message had been conciliatory and offered to negotiate a peaceful solution. The second, however, was bellicose.

        Kennedy had the wisdom and the ability to put himself in his adversary’s shoes. Both he and Nikita Khrushchev had seen the horrors of war firsthand and both men had no desire to initiate a war. Kennedy also realized that Khrushchev had his own “Curtis LeMays” urging a military response.

        Kennedy decided to ignore the second Kremlin message and replied to the first. A peaceful settlement to the crisis ensued.

        1. Apparently, JFK had a emissary speaking with Castro at time of his murder. Had he live , the world would be a very different place; just imagine no Vietnam war. Listen at the former president Eisenhower speak about the new world order and the power of the war industry.

          1. I’m not quite sure that’s true, JFK is the president who 1st sent US “Advisors” to Vietnam. Given his feelings about the rise of Russian and Chinese influence I think it’s quite possible that we still would’ve been in Vietnam. We probably would’ve handled it very differently but still would’ve been there.

        2. Barack Hussein Obama is the worst “dummy” President this country ever had. His legacy will not stand long as the next “real” POTUS will take office.

          1. Obama knows exactly what he’s doing the 8steps to socialism. Take over healthcare so people are dependent on you-welfare/control food,housing- take control of education so you can sway teaching in any direction you want-degrade middle class so they are more dependent on the government-take over gun control so there can not be an uprising unfortunately I forgot the last three! FIVE OUT OF EIGHT ARE DONE!!!!! The last three are IN THE WORKS. He has been very instrumental in getting these things done.

          2. Do you real articles or just leap to the comment section to spew hate. Stay on topic, please. But since you brought it up, he has dramatically improved the lives of millions of Americans. Look at the facts, not Fox News.

          3. Actualy Obama is the least dummy president. Bush was(couse he is stupid) and he relays to other people for advice about just everything. And Reagan was even worse. A puppet of wall Street .

        3. Obama never made peace with anyone – He bombed Libya for 7 months to steal their oil and their gold, then he bombed Syria for several years until the Russians stopped him with a no-fly zone. He’s also given the Saudis $60 billion in weapons to bomb Yemen and spent $5 billion of your tax dollars to overthrow the elected government in Ukraine. Plus he bombed Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, all since 2009.

          Anyone who thinks that Obama makes peace is delusional…

      1. Yeah, after all those bad decisions like: Getting us out of a recession, getting us out of war, providing health care for 20 million, starting the longest job creation streak in our history, medical costs are expected to go down by 1.2 TRILLION by 2020, the month he took over we lost 820,000 jobs now we average over 200,000 plus per month, stock market sets record, low inflation, getting Iran to give up nukes, under $2 gas, no attacks, pushed thru stimulus that created millions of jobs. This is just a partial list and he did all this while the right was doing everything it could to hurt America to make Obama look bad to gain political power. What’s it like to support the people who are suppressing our fundamental democratic right, the right to vote. How proud you must be.

        1. @Pat. You cannot be serious. The worst most incompetent president in history. You fail to mention his foreign affair disasters, namely Mid east. You fail to note the disaster obamacare is to the millions of working Americans who have to pay for the entitlements. They would love to expand this nightmare to the millions of illegals. We are trillions in debt and that is all because we have a community organizer in office who hasn’t got a clue. 2016 wlecetion cannot come soon enough.

        2. Gas isn’t under $2 , here. After moving and starting a new job, health care has become more expensive. My Wife and Children are covered. I am not. Because every rate has been way too high. House payments, car payments, twins, and I have to pony up an extra 200-300 a month more for insurance than what I had previously. Health care costs? Psh. Even with insurance, the deductible we have now is double what it was before. Prosthetic eye went from around 100 – 150 after insurance to around 275, for our son. Not sure where you got your numbers, but for every person it may have helped, It did not for someone else. As far as some of your other statements, some just aren’t true. For instance, when did he actually get the US out of war? Last time I checked, we still had quite a few men and women overseas. Fighting. Dying. So don’t feel upset when some don’t believe the things you say.

          1. These comments show that most people around the world are just concerned about themselves. In reality, we cannot live alone and we need to be concerned about “us” as a collective people and how everything, including massive weapons of destruction, affect everyone. I should have capitalized “everyone” as so many people think oh you mean everyone but me. I am different, my circumstances are unique to me, I am affected by many things but not war, guns, massive weapons of destruction, etc. Wake up, world, or we will not even exist as a world if things don’t get under control. We need world leaders that are very responsible, very concerned, very courageous, very kind, very considerate, and very loving, or we will simply put this great planet and every person on it in jeopardy. The people of the US, Canada, Russia, France, Italy, Nigeria, Brazil, and most countries that are not doing too bad, have to stop thinking that Somalia, El Salvador, Korea, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and any country not doing very well, are unimportant. We have to make changes to our thinking process now, not tomorrow, not after a major catastrophe happens, not later when some surviving people, if any survive, look around one day, and try to decipher what went so badly. The baby boomers used to look up to the UN as being the organization that could resolve any awkward situations. We need this org. to be strong and helpful to all peoples around the world. May God save us all.

        3. Obama HAS done a lot of good. History will support this view one day. He has done light years more for the country than his predecessor. But in today’s political climate nothing the “other” candidate does ever remotely stands up to all the possible greatness of the candidate we voted for.
          Besides it is always easier to critcize than to offer constructive alternatives.

          I was 9 years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy handled it well. Yet he was critcized greatly, behind the scenes, during and after the event, especially by the Hawks on the Joint Chiefs Of Staff. They wanted a war I believe. The peaceful outcome of Cuba gave way to the Viet Nam War later. They had the guns and the bombs and by God they were going to use them on somebody. And they did.

  3. Arkhipov, possibly more than any other individual in history, did prevent a potential nuclear exchange. The article is excellent and generally accurate. In addition the four Foxtrot Class Commanding Officers were given oral orders before they departed: reach Cuba undetected or do not come back alive. They were also told that under extraordinary circumstances they should use the nuclear tipped torpedo without orders from Moscow. I was on the USS Charles P. Cecil (DDR-835) which held sonar contact on one of the four Foxtrots until it ran out of air and had to surface.

    1. I was stationed at Charleston AFB when this happened…it was real scary! But not HALF AS SCARY as it is knowing this was going on!!! wow!!!

    2. Please tell us how you, a field level American serviceman, knew exactly what verbal orders were given by the Russian command before their departure.

  4. This edited Letter to Editor of the Peoria Journal Star in Peoria IL was published on Saturday, March 26. The paragraph of my wife being blocked performing her important position by NORAD during the Cuban crisis due to her ID card was edited out by the paper. I felt it was an analogy to voter ID restrictions now allowed by the ruling of SCOTUS. Enjoyed the article as I personally knew how close we were to war. I & my fellow Army doctors were in fascinating horror during those 10 days. Have many sidebar stories of that time which I experienced during those 10 days.

    Dr. Richard G. Macdonald
    Forum PJS

    Mar 22 at 3:53 PM

    At this moment, I am sitting watching a base ballgame. It is a game between Cuba & Tampa Bay Rays in Havana Cuba. Everyone on that field and in the stands could immediately walk across our southern borders to freedom without even a wall stopping them. President Obama & Cuba President Raul Castro are sitting together high fiving each other for great outfield catches. Thanks to Congress and the Statue of Liberty, this ability to be accepted right now by our country without qualms while these two Presidents sit next to each other smiling is sign of our country’s greatness.

    Yet candidates for the office of the president not only think 50 years of failure is a sign of Cuban foreign policy success but now want to prevent every other country’s citizens being accepted with the same access to USA that Cuba now has. Matter of fact, a few of the candidates even brag about their heritage with Cuba and how their own family exists in the USA because of this privileged Congressional approval.

    As an enlisted man during the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall being built and then as an officer; I had to make out a will & testament, get a yellow flu shot after standing in silence with my fellow hospital doctors in front of a black and white TV set watching President Kennedy saying we may be on the brink of atomic warfare.

    At the same time, my wife worked as an executive secretary for NORAD and couldn’t go to work to serve our country in high crisis as her Army dependent ID card was invalid until she obtained an Air Force ID. Reminds me of voting ID laws today by states afraid of people voting. The exception is that we aren’t on the brink of going to war with Russia in 1962 but the fear on IDs by elected office holders appears to be the same.

    As a Vet, I much prefer high fiving at a baseball game than using Shock & Awe to win over a country and its people.

    Richard G. Macdonald

    Tremont, IL 61568


  5. The blatant reference to “pakistani generals” and associating them with the likes of “jihadists” was very derogatory and sad to read. Please refrain from such remarks. You just offended 20 million people.

    1. Do be quiet, you (as a nation) are a danger to yourself and you don’t even realize it. And your comment is proof enough. Instead of taking this article as it is, your feathers get ruffled like a 12 year old girl who’s been told she cant have desert. You have 20 million generals in your country? You just offended your own civilians who mitigate for peace.

      1. And you just offended all women! Well done for maximizing the opportunity and degrading half the population. Congrats!

  6. never heard about that .all i knew was from the amercian point of view ..there are always those people in the middle of crisis who can keep calm and pull out danger with very highr risk and become reason of saving lives …

    1. I will tread lightly because you mention this as your work. The use of enriched uranium for its pyrophoric properties makes no sense due to the cost. The world has mountains of depleted uranium left over from the enrichment process, which cost more to store than it does to use for any purpose. The chemical properties are the same regardless the isotope of uranium, so I don’t buy the use of any form of enriched uranium in this particular use. I do not doubt that uranium is used, but it is most certainly not enriched in the isotope of 235U…it can only be depleted-U.

      And your quote “It would be very easy to disassemble the missiles and take possession of the 235U to use it in an improvised nuclear device” is missing about 1,000 pages of chemistry and physics, therefore rendering your characterization of “very easy” absolutely false. You can’t take lowly enriched uranium and turn it into an improvised nuke without further enriching the material, which is no easy task, especially when the uranium is already alloyed. It’s a dirty bomb at best, but a very lame one!

  7. If you are surprised to find nuclear torpedoes in the hands of individual crews, read Command and Control, the Damascus Accident … by Eric Schlosser (sp?)

  8. There is a similar story told by the aid of one of the Chiefs of staff of the military of the day of the confrontation. All of them were in Kennedy’s office waiting to see if the Soviet fleet would cross the red line that JFK had drawn as the “act of war” line. The guy in command of the American ships called to say that the Soviet ships had crossed the line. All the people in the room were commanding the president to give the order to attack. The guy telling his eye witness story said that President Kennedy sat there in his rocking chair with everyone yelling at him about how we “had to hit them.” This would surely have resulted in a nuclear war. His family had already been evacuated from Washington and the plane was standing ready to take him out to the caves in the Midwest. Finally, he said, with tears in his eyes, ” I can’t. I have children.” Now JFK was a decorated war hero. He was no wimp. A minute later, the phone rang. It was the commander again. It was a mistake. The Soviet fleet had not crossed the red line. They had stopped and turned around. When I heard that story, my first thought was that this was what JFK was sent to us for, for that one moment in history when one strong man stood against all his advisors and the opinion of the world and said, “I can’t. I have children” to save us all unknowingly from an error that would have had devastating consequences beyond the imagination.

  9. There was another Russian officer who saved the world. Three blips came on Russian radar indication that the U.S had launched three nuclear weapons. The officer only had a few minutes to decide if he would launch Russian nuclear missiles in retaliation. Moments went by and deadline for launching the missiles was fast approaching. Relying on his experience and gut instinct the commander ordered that the missiles not be launched. No American missiles hit Russia because there weren’t any. It was later discovered that the cause of the radar signal was an unusual atmospheric event that showed up on radar. The world was only moments away from a world nuclear holocaust leaving no one alive.

  10. I spent those days baby sitting a warhead waiting for the orders.

    We were on the boarder in Germany and with all the rumors we where sure that it was for real and it probable was!

    Details were classified……………….

  11. I was 10 yrs old at the time and have an uncanny clear memory of this. My dad was stationed at a SAC air base in New England. I remember being in class on base and we had an alert, we practiced hiding under our desks in case of being nuked. I remember watching on the TV with my mom and dad and siblings. I remember thinking that we were going to die. The tension, the fear, the ulitmate dread of nuclear holocast for which I still have nightmares of.
    Thank God clear and sane minds prevaled.

  12. Robert Krulwich,

    The casual way to tell the world that Pakistan generals and jihadist are one and the same is shameful. This proves time and again that people like you have an agenda. If anything you should also mention the accumulation of nuclear weapons by India which you conveniently omit.

  13. Listing all those rogue states with nuclear weapons – surprising (or not) how you fail to mention the elephant in the room, Israel

  14. I remember the afternoon of the first interception of the Russian vessels, which everyone thought would lead to WW2. I lived in Plymouth, UK which had a massive naval dockyard in those days and would have been on the first strike list.

    We had woodwork all afternoon in the basement of our five storey school and we practised getting under the benches in case the siren went off. Eventually the hours passed and Armageddon was avoided and life went on. If the Russian submarine captain deserves praise so does the captain of the first cargo boat intercepted. Both events handled differently could have led to WW3.

  15. Please do not include Pakistani neuclear weapons in the list you shared at the end of your story. One the worlds most safest neuclear system is being followed by Pakistani Govt. I feel sorry for your knowdlege .

  16. Pakistani generals, jihadists, ???

    I am not a Paki nor Asian i am Dutch but seriously? don’t you know the difference between Pak generals and Jihadists? shame on writer of this post very bias and Zionist (Robert Krulwich) type of mentality. on one had he is praising someone for doing good to this world and its people on the other hand he is doing opposite to it disgracing a nation of almost 190 Millions.peoples…. shame on you once again.

  17. There is an other soviet officer that saved the world. His name is stanislav petrov. Just Google it or watch the docu/film “the man who saved the world.

  18. I would agree that the author should not have put any state nuclear program in the same sentence as jihadists, but I’m not sure that everyone should be looking at getting their feelings hurt by his poor comparisons.

    Yes, he did list Pakistani generals to the left of jihadists…but he also listed the U.S. president to the right of it. You don’t see anyone getting butt hurt over that. The author failed at making whatever point he hoped to make at the end of the article, but I don’t understand why there are so many out there looking to be offended by something.

  19. This incident was similar to the movie, The Bedford Incident, made in 1965 with Richard Widmark. In it, the sub commander launches his nuclear tipped missile and the consequences were much different than it was in real life.

  20. The story is a great material for a movie.

    If the screen play is written properly, the movie can be an Oscar material. It will have great elements of human emotions and actions.

    Now, who will be the actor who can play the part of Arkhipov? Benedict Cumberbatch?

  21. It is good to hear people of different nationalities on social networks having mostly civil conversations and sharing info.

  22. I lived through this and remember seeing how shaken our president was. Looking back and seeing where we are today with those who think they are capable of running this country, I am so grateful Kennedy was at the helm!

  23. Communications with submarines has always been more difficult than communications with other assets. Thus, a submariner (especially one 50 years ago) needs more autonomy than other commanders. I find this article very believable.

  24. Russians are the real heroes of the world, yet are portrayed as villains throughout Western Literature. Meanwhile, USA “World Police” both as a joke and absurd philosophy messed up Iran, Argentina, Afghanistan, Iraq, and probably Syria and Libya as well. At least countries like South Korea, Israel, and at least *delayed* Cambodian atrocities were helped.

    1. 100% agree. the Smerican’s history class is so out of touch and fact twitching. it made JFK looks like a hero when “fact” is not pointing that way. and people seem to believe it anyway.
      To American historians, it is ok for the US to have missile in Turkey but not for the USSR to have missile in Cuban! Double standard!

      1. Is that “fact twitching” or fact tweaking, as in, “Yeah, we’ll just tweak a few facts here and there, nothing major. Ain’t no big thing. Move along now, nothing to see here.”
        Which in my mind touches on the tangential topic of having centralized Federal government control of schools and schooling materials – having 50 states in distributed control gives an increase, albeit small since they do get Federal money and have to play along, in the probability of someone somewhere adding a little more reality to the material.

  25. This is why Trump is right. We need to TALK to Russia, not try to dominate the world and turn them into an enemy again… How dare this crowd in DC.
    Full Spectrum Dominance is the policy of the US, and the nasty evil talking heads saying crappy things about Putin isn’t helping matters. How dare we pick on a country that still has nuclear missiles, with a man in charge who has the will to use them(our current president would probably wet his knickers and surrender)
    But then, us old vets have a different outlook on war…

  26. JFK installed nuclear warhead missile in Turky which can reach Moscow “first”.
    Then for Cubar, CIA under JFK admin came up with evil plans like the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Operation Mongoose, Northwoods, a couple more assassination plot + a few more coup attempt.

    To me, you cannot blame the USSR and Cuba for the missile cries. JFK start all the trouble leading to the cries. JFK was definitely a bad guy here.

    Not to mention about he fail policy on the Vietnam war too. JFK is EVIL for international security.

  27. How Arkhipov (that’s him up above) managed to keep his temper in all that heat, how he managed to persuade his frantic colleague, we can’t say, but it helps to know that ArkhOpov was already a Soviet hero

  28. This is an interesting article! Thanks to NatGeo for bringing it to light.

    As it turns out, the USA is the *only* country which has actually used a nuclear weapon against another country till date — and that too unprovoked and on civilian population. The greatest irony is that it is the same country who claims to be the nuclear guardian of the world today!

  29. There are many things that people wish they DIDN’T know about events that happen to those who serve in the military – this is a part of serving. The sad part is many relatives sometime find out about a few of those events. While the death of this man was the result of his service, he served more then just his country – he served humanity as well. He did this by NOT giving into the fear of war and death without actual proof of it happening.

    The sad part is that he was never given recognition for that. It is good that this ‘secret’ story of military service was told. It not only honors him, it honors ALL that serve by showing that there are those who serve with honor and reason, in spite of the imagined horrors any serviceman knows that can happen should a major conflict occur.

    Some might say that military regulations and rules are the most important things for someone serving – but in truth, the single MOST important thing anyone – not just the military – can know/do is to avoid making decisions when affected by fear.

  30. There are probably other untold stories of such heroism, but thank goodness for officer Arkhipov. brave man indeed, with a cool head on his shoulders.
    Having lived through those times (each month as primary school children we would practice the nuclear attack drill by diving under our little wooden desks), I can attest to how heightened tensions were. Thank goodness for the sane people that helped each side navigate the period… and God fear if someone as bellicose and clueless as trump ever has their fingers on the button.

      1. Hi Victoria,

        Thanks so much for sharing this spelling error with us. We’ve updated the post to reflect the correct spelling of his name.

  31. An eye opening article that how nuclear weapons can be harmful for humanity if these are not handled with cool mind . But the danger still prevails -if these go in wrong hands like Jihadis we can imagine what would be the fate of our lovely world.

  32. My father was a a bombadier/navigator in B-47 at the time. How close did we come to full nuclear exchange…his flight log tells it all. It simply says (at the end of the crisis) “Great flight home, didn’t expect to be making this one” Prayers of thanks to this brave man for stopping his other captain.

  33. Mentioning Pakistan was fair enough but since these, as mentioned, Jihadists are having no access to Nuclear weapons of Pakistan.
    As a matter of fact, our neighbour, India are in fact careless when it comes to its nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons.
    Pakistan is of course a responsible state which is maintaining nuclear arsenal for Defensive Purpose only.
    Religiously speaking, Islam does not permit mass destruction even when it’s a war. Read Bible, where you have the same commandment.


  34. I’m from Pakistan, a student of Nuclear Physics.
    There is a line in the end says about Pakistani generals and the worry of the world about the safety of Nuclear program. Let me tell you guys one thing very clearly that our Nuclear program is in safe hands more than even yours. I can’t compare my country with US or Russia who are the super powers, with limited resources we develop this program for our safety as our neighbors started this program but no one even passes a comment. Ohh yeah the safety of the program is so secure there hasn’t been any single incident of exposure while how many of your died you better know.
    You guys talk about peace, yet you are the biggest manufacturer of Nuclear weapons. You want us to let down our program, why not you do yours first and than we’ll do ours ..

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