Nuclear War Was Averted, Thanks to One Cold Warrior

The world may have been saved from a nuclear holocaust, based upon the decision of one man, a Russian officer aboard a Soviet submarine during the Cuban missile crisis in October, 1962. With the possibility of war at any time, it had been several days since the submarine had contact with Moscow. Radio communication would reveal its presence to its cold war enemy, the United States.

On the day of October 27th, a US destroyer detected the submarine and dropped depth charges in an attempt to force it to the surface, although the submarine was in international waters. The Soviet captain then believed that a state of war existed, and he prepared to launch a torpedo carrying a small nuclear warhead at a nearby US aircraft carrier. Before he could launch, the agreement of all three top ranking officers on the boat was required, which included himself. One man descented and prevented the launch of the torpedo, averting what would likely have become a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union after the use of such a weapon. The one man who was responsible for preventing nuclear war was an officer named Vasili Arkhipov.

The Arms Control Association has posted an article on its website, “Apocalypse Averted: Lessons From the Man Who Saved the World,” giving an account of the events that took place on that day. The article emphasizes the systems of command and control for use of nuclear weapons by major nuclear powers – the US, the UK, France and Russia, to help prevent nuclear war that could occur due to circumstances such as these. It warns of the increasing number of nations that will have nuclear weapons at their disposal, and the possibility of their use – especially when such weapons are aboard sea vessels, and submarines in particular, when out of direct communication.

China is now a major nuclear power and currently has nuclear armed submarines, while Israel and India may also deploy them in the future. These nations have established civilian control of warheads on land, only attaching them to missiles if a crisis develops, for the ability to launch on a moment’s notice. However, in the case of submarines, this is not possible, the reports.

Not all nations may place the same limitations of command over their officers and their possible actions at sea, when out of contact with higher authority. It is easy to imagine a similar situation where a submarine may be out of contact in order to remain concealed, and have reason to believe a state of war exists. A technical difficulty causing a communication breakdown during a potential crises could lead to the assumption that home command has been attacked or destroyed, and that war has begun.

The possibility of a regional or global nuclear war will increase, as more nations deploy nuclear weapons at sea, aboard vessels out of direct communication and under independent command. The Arms Control Association warns in its article, of the seriousness of this developing technology in the hands of many nations, and asks for international discussion and cooperation, highlighting the increasing opportunities for mistakes that may lead to the use of a weapon with disastrous results.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE