War/Conflict: Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis
Date: 27 October 1962
Event: During an international reunion 40 years after the event, a 34-year-old Soviet naval officer, Commodore Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, was credited with being the central and defining figure in a potentially apocalyptic drama played out hundreds of feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 500 miles off the coast of Cuba. As the flotilla commander of four diesel-powered submarines, Arkhipov was also the second-in-command of one of the four boats, B-59. Detected by the US Navy on 27 October 1962 attempting to pass covertly through President John F Kennedy’s line of quarantine around Cuba, the submerged B-59 was subject to small explosive charges dropped by American warships in an attempt to force it to surface. Unbeknown to the Americans, the infiltrating subs each carried a single nuclear-armed torpedo that the boat’s captain was authorised to employ should he believe he was under attack. Fortunately for the world, while the other three boats required the approval of only the two most senior officers on board to employ their weapons, B-59 had three senior officers who needed to agree. The conditions in the sub were exceptionally harsh. Temperatures climbed past 122ºF (50ºC), air scrubbers were not working, crewmen were falling unconscious, and the boat’s batteries were nearly depleted. Believing war had broken out and that they were already under attack, two of B-59’s three senior officers were in agreement that they should fire their nuclear torpedo. The third officer, Arkhipov, calmly refused to authorise the weapon’s use, and eventually convinced the captain to surface instead.
Impact: For any survivors, 27 October would have been the anniversary of World War III had it not been for one man: Commodore Arkhipov. While Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev would receive all the accolades for their resolution of the crisis, in reality (though this was unknown for decades) it was Arkhipov’s calm disposition and sound rationale that prevented the fall of the first domino, the initial mushroom cloud that most likely would have expanded to global thermonuclear war. Of all the stars that shine within the Pantheon of world heroes, Arkhipov’s shines the brightest as the man who literally saved the world from itself.
Following the end of the Second World War, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union led to a decades-long period known as the Cold War, during which deterrence rested on nuclear weapons. The advent of a new age in which both the US and USSR had such destructive weapons at their disposal in turn gave rise to the concept of ‘MAD’ – or ‘mutually assured destruction’ – a doctrine that discouraged a pre-emptive nuclear attack because of the inevitably cataclysmic consequences for both sides. Instead, MAD resulted in conventional military tensions and conflict, either as a function of East-West standoffs, military clashes, or proxy wars.
The Cold War intensified in the early 1960s, escalating within months of Kennedy’s inauguration on 20 January 1961. Fidel Castro had been a major focus of the US ever since January 1960, when he had led a revolution in Cuba. To deal with the perceived Castro threat, Kennedy inherited from the Eisenhower administration a plan to invade Cuba with a small army of exiles. Armed with American weapons and transported by American landing craft, 1,200 expats waded ashore at the Bay of Pigs on 17 April 1961. The group was quickly met and overwhelmed by Castro’s army. This catastrophic failure helped solidify Castro’s hold on the island and left Kennedy looking indecisive and weak.
Khrushchev had long sought an opportunity both to minimise the US’s overwhelming nuclear superiority and to gain leverage in order to bring West Berlin, then controlled by the American, British, and French within Communist East Germany, into the Soviet orbit. In Cuba, he saw an opportunity. The Soviet premier’s gambit was to covertly move medium- (MRBM) and intermediate-range (IRBM) nuclear-armed missiles into Cuba in the belief not only that Kennedy would be non-confrontational and back down, but also, with such a threat only 90 miles off the US east coast, that he would no longer be able to threaten a nuclear response to maintain the status quo of a divided Berlin.
The first ships loaded with military equipment for Cuba began to arrive in late July. The deployment included nuclear-tipped theatre ballistic missiles (TBMs) – R-12 MRBMs and R-14 IRBMs. Both were single-stage, road-transportable missiles capable of carrying a 1-megaton warhead, over 1,200 and 2,300 miles respectively, thus effectively placing Washington, DC, New York City, or even Las Vegas within their nuclear cross hairs.
CIA U-2 surveillance overflights in early August revealed the initial military upgrades on the island – eight separate SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. On 13 September, an increasingly concerned Kennedy warned the USSR against placing offensive weapons in Cuba. On 4 October, an armed Soviet cargo ship arrived in Cuba to offload 160 nuclear warheads. On 15 October, US intelligence photo-interpreters identified a Soviet R-12 MRBM launch pad under construction 18 miles outside the town of San Cristobal. It would be the start of the most intense and dangerous period in modern history – one that would not end until 13 days later, on 28 October.
On 22 October, Kennedy established what would be called the Executive Committee (ExComm), focused on recommending courses of action to the president. The world became aware of the growing crisis later that evening when Kennedy announced that photographic evidence had revealed that the Soviet Union was secretly constructing missile launch sites just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. ‘To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated.’
What was unknown at the time to the president was that the first nuclear missile unit on Cuba had by then been declared operational. All told, the Soviets had 58 nuclear-tipped TBMs, 12 nuclear short-range tactical missiles, 80 nuclear battlefield cruise missiles, six nuclear-armed bombers, and four nuclear naval mines.
Events began to heat up rapidly on 23 October, as a US naval force composed of 90 ships began to move into position to establish the quarantine, an arc 500 miles from Cuba. Sailing towards the quarantine force were approximately 25 unarmed Soviet cargo vessels and four submerged submarines. However, by the time the US quarantine line was officially established at 2pm GMT on 24 October, nearly all of the Soviet ships had either slowed or changed course.
The following day, 25 October, found the US Navy scurrying to locate the four submerged Soviet subs. Later that evening, as reports of US preparations for war grew, Khrushchev had a personal letter delivered to Kennedy that raised the spectre of a nuclear holocaust and proposed a solution: that the Soviet missiles and military specialists would be removed from Cuba in exchange for a public pledge by the US not to invade the island.
Events intensified on Saturday 27 October, first with Khrushchev confusing matters by ineptly following up with a second letter to Kennedy in which he stated that the USSR would remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for the US removing its 15 MRBMs from Turkey. Then, as the day progressed, the US launched a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft overflight of Cuba. At an altitude of 14 miles, the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr, soared over the island. Two Soviet surface-to-air missiles streaked skyward, destroying the spy plane and killing Major Anderson.
Word of the U-2’s downing sent shivers through Kennedy. The ExComm’s members all assumed that the order to attack the aircraft had been issued by Moscow, compelling the Joint Chiefs of Staff to pressure the president to retaliate by bombing the SAM launch site.
To make matters worse, another U-2 on a routine mission accidentally drifted off course, penetrating 300 miles into the Soviet Union over Siberia. Six Soviet MiG fighter jets were scrambled to intercept and destroy the intruding aircraft. In response, the US launched two F-102 fighters carrying nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles to defend the U-2. Fortunately, the U-2 was able to escape Soviet airspace before any confrontation. When informed of the incursion, Kennedy responded with gallows humour: ‘There is always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.’
The most dangerous moment of the crisis, perhaps even in modern human history, occurred over a four-hour period in the late afternoon of 27 October. At the heart of it would be an event that few in the world would learn of until 40 years later.
Earlier, four old, diesel-powered Foxtrot-class Soviet submarines, designed more for Arctic conditions than tropical-waters service, had been sent on a secret mission. The submarine flotilla, composed of subs B-4, B-36, B-59, and B-130, were commanded by the brigade’s Chief of Staff, Commodore Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. Embarking from a top-secret naval installation in the Arctic Circle, they were to travel 7,000 miles across the Atlantic to Cuba. Each sub was host to a ‘special weapon’, a single nuclear torpedo that carried a 15-kiloton warhead. It was a weapon that the subs’ commanders were authorised to use if they felt they were under attack, or that war had started.
Around the outer perimeter of the quarantine zone, an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) force of US Navy warships patrolled. Around 5pm, Task Group Alpha, a group of 11 destroyers supported by the aircraft carrier USS Randolph, spotted B-59 and closed in on the submarine, prompting it to dive deep, cutting the boat off from any further communications.
For days, the subs had had no contact with Moscow. Though they had picked up US civilian radio broadcasts earlier about the crisis and the downing of the U-2, all contact with the outside world ceased as they dived deeper in an attempt to hide from the pursuing US Navy destroyers. B-59 was submerged, at a depth of 60 to 100 metres – but with no isothermal layers (different underwater temperature layers, which can confuse detection) to deflect the American sonar and hide beneath.
The destroyer USS Cony was the first to close on B-59, dropping a series of five charges at a time on alternating sides of the sub. Though defined by the Americans as ‘hand grenades’, the practice depth charges shook B-59 with repeated detonations, sounding like regular depth charges when they exploded at a depth of approximately 40 metres. Additional destroyers joined in.
The blasts intensified as the submarine’s batteries, its only source of power and propulsion while submerged, ran low. Trapped in a sweltering submarine with no working air-conditioning, temperatures climbed past 122ºF (50ºC) and crew members fell unconscious from carbon-dioxide poisoning. A crewmember would later write, ‘We thought – that’s it – the end. It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer.’
In the midst of rising chaos and panic, B-59’s skipper, Captain Valentin Savitsky, decided he had no choice other than to launch the sub’s nuclear torpedo against the attacking American ships. ‘Maybe the war has already started up there. We’re gonna blast them now!’ The sub’s political officer, Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, concurred. The target would be the aircraft carrier USS Randolph with a crew of more than 3,000.
Most fortuitously, B-59’s launch authority was unique among the subs in the flotilla, for it carried a third senior officer, Commodore Arkhipov, serving as the boat’s acting ‘Second Captain’. As such, Arkhipov’s approval was also needed. Though only 34 years old, Arkhipov’s reputation within the submarine fleet was already that of a Soviet hero. In July 1961, he had been the deputy commander of the new Hotel-class ballistic-missile submarine K-19, the pride of the Soviet Navy. Known to Americans as ‘The Widowmaker’, K-19 had a more graphic nickname among Russians: ‘Hiroshima’. While deployed, K-19’s nuclear-reactor cooling system failed, threatening a core meltdown. Arkhipov led the repair team that prevented the disaster. In the process, though, he and the entire crew were irradiated, resulting in dozens of deaths over the next few years.
Now, here he was, a little over a year later, personally dealing with an even greater potential nuclear disaster – one that could bring about World War III. Despite the rising temperatures, and voices, within the suffocating confines of the sub’s control room, Arkhipov remained calm, cool and collected. He worked to talk Savitsky down from the proverbial ledge on to which he had climbed by noting that the Americans were not dropping the charges directly on them – but were, instead, just trying to signal the sub to surface.
Eventually, the captain succumbed to the commodore’s logic and ordered B-59 to surface in the midst of the American fleet. Once on the surface, where they were met by a US destroyer, Savitsky realised that Arkhipov was right. The two nations were not at war. It would not be until nearly a half century later, when the former belligerents met at a 50-year reunion in 2002, that Americans learned of the nuclear torpedoes that were carried by the four Soviet submarines the US Navy had confronted in international waters.
The day’s events had seriously rattled both countries’ leaders, who realised just how close they’d come to the abyss of nuclear war as a result of their heavy-handed actions. The USSR’s objective was to protect Castro’s government by deterring, not fighting, the US. As Khrushchev would routinely remark, ‘Any fool can start a war.’ Kennedy, also eager and driven to avoid a war, actively sought to arrive at a solution that would provide both leaders with a politically acceptable escape from the entanglement the two nations had found themselves in.
To do so, Kennedy sought to see the issue from Khrushchev’s perspective. Two unsung and level-headed advisers helped the young president achieve this perspective – Under Secretary of State George Ball and Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson. In pushing back against the Chiefs of Staff who were pressing for a military assault, Ball, supported by the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had advised, ‘We tried Japanese as war criminals because of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.’ For the USA to conduct its own sneak attack, Americans would be condemned ‘as hypocrites’.
At the same time, Stevenson strongly stressed that any military action against Cuba would be countered by the Soviets in Berlin and Turkey, thus leading to a seriously deteriorating situation that could rapidly escalate out of control. In reality, ‘the existence of nuclear missile bases anywhere is negotiable before we start anything.’
Given the events of ‘Black Saturday’, and undoubtedly reflecting on the more restrained and diplomatic advice offered by Ball and Stevenson, Kennedy drafted a reply to Khrushchev’s first letter, ignoring the second, offering the Soviet Premier a face-saving opportunity by accepting Khrushchev’s initial proposal of a public pledge by the USA not to invade Cuba in exchange for the removal of the Soviet nuclear missiles from the island.
When Robert Kennedy delivered the president’s letter to the Soviet Ambassador later that evening, the president’s brother verbally conveyed two additional messages from the president. The first was that while there would be no ‘quid pro quo’ regarding the removal of Soviet missiles, he hinted that there would be further concessions and that, eventually, the US would look to remove the missiles in Turkey after an appropriate delay. The second message was a warning. If there were no response to the letter within 24 hours, an attack against Cuba would most likely commence on 30 October.
Khrushchev accepted Kennedy’s solution shortly after with a public announcement that Soviet missiles would be dismantled and removed from Cuba forthwith. He also sent Kennedy a letter with his own warning that any further violations of Soviet airspace, like the one that had occurred the day before with the U-2 over Siberia, ‘could be easily taken for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step’ and trigger a nuclear war.
After 13 days, the world was finally stepping away from the brink of nuclear armageddon. By 1 December, the last Soviet warheads sailed from Cuba. Five months later, in April 1963, the US Jupiter missiles in Turkey were quietly removed.
As for the crew of the B-59, upon their return to the Soviet Union the submarine’s senior leaders faced scorn and contempt from their superiors. One admiral told them, ‘It would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship.’ The incident, and Arkhipov’s role in it, did not negatively impact his career, however, as he continued to advance through the Russian submarine service. Promoted to vice admiral in 1981, he retired in the mid 1980s. He died on 19 August 1998 of kidney cancer, which was likely the result of his radiation exposure during the K-19 accident.
It was the US Senator George Vest, who, in 1891, noted that ‘history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.’ And so it would prove in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis. To the world, the US was victorious; the Soviets had backed down. The Americans were elated over an apparent spectacular victory. In the end, though, a case can be made that both the US and USSR were losers – and that the only true winner was humanity itself.
For the Soviets, Khrushchev seriously and dangerously underestimated the US response, failing to recognise that Kennedy could not appear to be weak following his Bay of Pigs failure. Just as bad, if not even worse, was the Soviets’ lack of command and control when it came to nuclear weapons.
For the Americans, where does one start? In keeping with the tradition of the ‘victors’ writing history, much has been made of the theory that the ExComm was composed of ‘wise men’ who had ‘diligently worked through the most sensible policy options to reach the most appropriate decisions’. History and records released decades later would reveal that such was not the case. Wishful thinking and groupthink dominated the ExComm discussions. Much about ExComm was ad hoc, a poor substitute in a time of crisis for a well-planned and rehearsed decision-making process. The irony of the group’s recommendation to attack is that most of its members would probably not have been alive at the end to know that they had been wrong in their positions. If there are any good lessons to be drawn from the crisis, few are predicated on the ExComm’s actions.
Added to this were the seriously flawed CIA intelligence analyses. Underestimating an adversary’s response, accidents perceived as potential acts of war, and warmonger advisors all paled in contrast to the failure of America’s military intelligence to anticipate the presence of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba.
But while Kennedy demurred on launching an attack, history would prove that it was the Soviets who created the preconditions that might have triggered the launch of a nuclear torpedo at US warships – an action that would have led to a surging series of catastrophic events. US warships would most likely have responded with nuclear depth charges against B-59 and, most likely, the other three nearby Soviet submarines, each armed with their own nuclear torpedoes. Kennedy, then, would have had no option but to authorise an American invasion of Cuba – an invasion that would have been met by Soviet tactical nuclear weapons, which unbeknownst to the US were on the island and had been authorised by the Kremlin for use in self-defence.
Had B-59’s torpedo been launched, the fate of the world would have been very different, most likely resulting in global devastation. Mushroom clouds would have expanded well beyond Cuba, the Caribbean, and US east coast. At a minimum, the Pentagon estimated the escalation of a nuclear exchange over Cuba would result in an unimaginable 150 million dead and a ‘nuclear winter’ in the northern hemisphere.
Below the waters of the Caribbean, the flint that would have ignited that escalation was within the hands of one man, Commodore Vasili Arkhipov. As was noted in 2002 by Thomas Blanton, director of the independent non-governmental National Security Archive at George Washington University, when talking of the Cuban Missile Crisis, ‘The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.’
Many see national nuclear strategy as a high-stakes form of poker. But the involvement of nuclear weapons means that it is not a game. There are many lessons to be learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis, most obviously that brinkmanship is a dangerous strategy – to say the least – in a situation where the unanticipated use of nuclear weapons might quickly lead to armageddon.
As for Vasili Arkhipov? To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous quote about the Battle of Britain, ‘Never in the field of potential human conflict was so much owed by so many to one man.’ We, the inhabitants of planet Earth, owe the greatest of debts, and quite possibly our very lives, to a reserved, steadfast Russian naval officer who prevented 27 October 2022 from becoming the black 60th anniversary of World War III. Though even today few know his name, Arkhipov remains a prime example of how one person can literally save the world. The really disturbing question is whether there will be another Arkhipov should the world need one.
The Butterfly Effect
The Butterfly Effect is a metaphor coined in 1972 by Edward Lorenz, an American mathematician, to describe the concept of sensitive and potentially profound dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory – the way a small change at one place in a complex system, such as the beat of butterfly wings, can ultimately, through a series of growing events, have a large impact elsewhere, such as affecting a tornado.
Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz refers in his classic treatise On War to such chaos and complexity as components of the ‘friction’ and ‘fog’ of war. When it comes to Butterfly Effects amid chaos and complexity, where are such history-changing variables more prevalent than on the field of battle?
John D Lock, Lieutenant-Colonel, US Army (ret’d), is a graduate and former assistant professor of the United States Military Academy, West Point. A Ranger-qualified Master Parachutist and honour graduate from many of the Army’s premier leadership courses, his assignments included the 1st Armored and 82nd Airborne Divisions, as well as serving as the chief NATO SFOR engineer in the Balkans during the Kosovo Campaign.