In this post, I talked at length about the definition of a “World War” and argued that, though large level global conflict can still happen, a “World War III” cannot happen because we have been operating within in a post-imperial context since about 1989; I also argued that if there was going to be a WWIII, it would have happened during the Cold War. There’s a bit more on this here.
So this is a post about a dude who probably stopped World War III from happening in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. His name is Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov (1926-1999), and he was a Soviet naval officer.
Arkhipov in military dress; photo courtesy of his wife.
In 1962—in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis—eleven US Navy destroyers trapped a nuclear Soviet submarine near Cuba. They began dropping practice—meaning non-nuclear—depth charge explosives around the vessel in order to force it to surface for identification purposes. Although the Soviets knew that the US was using practice depth charges, the captain of the sub believed that war had already begun and decided that the sub should launch one of the nuclear tipped torpedoes it was armed with.
There were three officers on board, including Arkhipov, who were authorized to launch the torpedo under the condition that they all agreed that it was the correct action to take. All but Arkhipov were in favor of launching. Though an argument ensued, eventually Arkhipov was able to persuade the other two to await orders from Moscow before taking any decisive action.
Many officers and experts believe that Arkhipov’s actions prevented the outbreak of nuclear warfare. On October 13, 2002 Robert McNamara—who served as Secretary of Defense to both JFK and LBJ—stated at the conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis that the US and the USSR had come much closer to nuclear war than most people had been aware of. In the same year Thomas Blanton—then the director of the National Security Archive—said that “a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”
So did Arkhipov’s actions prevent the breakout of a nuclear World War III? That’s hard to say; especially because I am not a Cold War historian. What we can say is that, if the torpedo had been launched, the US would have taken that as an act of war. Considering the levels of the amassing of nuclear weapons by both sides during this period, and the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction—not to mention the proxy wars fought in East Asia—it is very likely that the launching of the torpedo would have pushed the US and the USSR into a declared war. After that, I cannot say. Do I have any Cold War and/or modern military historians out there who want to chime in on this?