Vasily Aleksandrovich Arkhipov (Russian: Василий Александрович Архипов, 30 January 1926 to 19 August 1998) was a Soviet Navy officer credited with preventing a Soviet nuclear strike (and, potentially, all-out nuclear war) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such an attack likely would have caused a major global thermonuclear response.
As flotilla commander and second-in-command of the diesel powered submarine B-59, Arkhipov refused to authorise the captain’s use of nuclear torpedoes against the United States Navy, a decision requiring the agreement of all three senior officers aboard.
In 2002, Thomas Blanton, who was then director of the US National Security Archive, said that Arkhipov “saved the world”.
Arkhipov was born into a peasant family in the town of Staraya Kupavna, near Moscow. He was educated in the Pacific Higher Naval School and participated in the Soviet-Japanese War in August 1945, serving aboard a minesweeper. He transferred to the Caspian Higher Naval School and graduated in 1947.
After graduating in 1947, Arkhipov served in the submarine service aboard boats in the Black Sea, Northern and Baltic Fleets.
In July 1961, Arkhipov was appointed deputy commander and therefore executive officer of the new Hotel-class ballistic missile submarine K-19. After a few days of conducting exercises off the south-east coast of Greenland, the submarine developed an extreme leak in its reactor coolant system. This leak led to failure of the cooling system. Radio communications were also affected, and the crew was unable to make contact with Moscow. With no backup systems, Captain Nikolai Zateyev ordered the seven members of the engineer crew to come up with a solution to avoid nuclear meltdown. This required the men to work in high radiation levels for extended periods. They eventually came up with a secondary coolant system and were able to prevent a reactor meltdown. Although they were able to save themselves from a nuclear meltdown, the entire crew, including Arkhipov, were irradiated. All members of the engineer crew and their divisional officer died within a month due to the high levels of radiation they were exposed to. Over the course of two years, 15 more sailors died from the after-effects.
Involvement in Cuban Missile Crisis
Refer to Cuban Missile Crisis.
On 27 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of 11 United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the diesel-powered, nuclear-armed Foxtrot-class submarine B-59 near Cuba. Despite being in international waters, the United States Navy started dropping signalling depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. There had been no contact from Moscow for a number of days and, although the submarine’s crew had earlier been picking up US civilian radio broadcasts, once B-59 began attempting to hide from its US Navy pursuers, it was too deep to monitor any radio traffic. Those on board did not know whether war had broken out or not. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decided that a war might already have started and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.
Unlike the other submarines in the flotilla, three officers on board B-59 had to agree unanimously to authorise a nuclear launch: Captain Savitsky, the political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and the flotilla commodore (and executive officer of B-59) Arkhipov. Typically, Soviet submarines armed with the “Special Weapon” only required the captain to get authorisation from the political officer to launch a nuclear torpedo, but due to Arkhipov’s position as commodore, B-59’s captain also was required to gain his approval. An argument broke out, with only Arkhipov against the launch.
Even though Arkhipov was second-in-command of the submarine B-59, he was in fact commodore of the entire submarine flotilla, including B-4, B-36 and B-130. According to author Edward Wilson, the reputation Arkhipov had gained from his courageous conduct in the previous year’s K-19 incident also helped him prevail. Arkhipov eventually persuaded Savitsky to surface and await orders from Moscow. This effectively averted the general nuclear war which probably would have ensued if the nuclear weapon had been fired. The submarine’s batteries had run very low and the air conditioning had failed, causing extreme heat and high levels of carbon dioxide inside the submarine. They were forced to surface amid the American pursuers and to return to the Soviet Union as a result.
Immediately upon return to Russia, many crew members were faced with disgrace from their superiors. One admiral told them “It would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship.” Olga, Arkhipov’s wife, even said “he didn’t like talking about it, he felt they hadn’t appreciated what they had gone through.” Each captain was required to present a report of events during the mission to Marshal Andrei Grechko, who substituted for the ill Soviet defence minister. Grechko was infuriated with the crew’s failure to follow the strict orders of secrecy after finding out they had been discovered by the Americans. One officer even noted Grechko’s reaction, stating that he “upon learning that it was the diesel submarines that went to Cuba, removed his glasses and hit them against the table in fury, breaking them into small pieces and abruptly leaving the room after that.”
In 2002, retired Commander Vadim Pavlovich Orlov, a participant in the events, held a press conference revealing the submarines were armed with nuclear torpedoes and that Arkhipov was the reason those devices had not been fired. Orlov presented the events less dramatically, saying that Captain Savitsky lost his temper, but eventually calmed down.
When discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 2002, Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence at the time, stated, “We came very close” to nuclear war, “closer than we knew at the time.” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an advisor for the John F. Kennedy administration and a historian, continued this thought by stating “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.”
Later Life and Death
Arkhipov continued in Soviet Navy service, commanding submarines and later submarine squadrons. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1975, and became head of the Kirov Naval Academy. Arkhipov was promoted to vice admiral in 1981 and retired in the mid-1980s.
He subsequently settled in Kupavna (which was incorporated into Zheleznodorozhny, Moscow Oblast, in 2004), where he died on 19 August 1998. The radiation to which Arkhipov had been exposed in 1961 may have contributed to his kidney cancer, like many others who served with him in the K-19 accident.
Nikolai Vladimirovich Zateyev, the commander of the submarine K-19 at the time of its onboard nuclear accident, died on 28 August 1998. Both Arkhipov and Zateyev were 72 at the time of their deaths.
Arkhipov was married to Olga Arkhipova until his death in 1998. They had a daughter named Yelena.
Arkhipov was known to be a shy and humble man. In a 2012 PBS documentary titled The Man Who Saved the World, his wife described him as intelligent, polite and very calm. Much of what is known about his personality comes from her. According to her, he enjoyed searching for newspapers during their vacations and tried to stay up-to-date with the modern world as much as possible. In this same interview, Olga alludes to her husband’s possible superstitious beliefs as well. She recalls walking in on Vasily burning a bundle of their love letters inside their house, claiming that keeping the letters would mean “bad luck”.
The fourth track on the 2017 album The Dusk in Us by American punk rock band Converge is titled “Arkhipov Calm” and is based on his Cuban Missile Crisis decision.
Awards and Honours
In recognition of his actions onboard B-59, Arkhipov received the first “Future of Life Award,” which was presented posthumously to his family in 2017. Offered by the Future of Life Institute, this award recognises exceptional measures, often performed despite personal risk and without obvious reward, to safeguard the collective future of humanity.