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 Peter Takes on History 

October 28, 1962

The Cuban Missile Crisis - On The Eve Of Destruction

In 1962 I was a nine year old boy but the moment I started reading up on today’s subject, The Cuban Missile Crisis, all the names came rushing back: Adlai Stevenson, Anatoly Dobrynin, Nikita Khrushchev and JFK. But one name I didn’t remember was Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov and it turns out that on this day in 1962 this calm, modest, veteran Russian Naval officer saved the world.
Let’s start with a little context. The Russians had taken control of Eastern Europe. There were NATO missiles in Italy and Turkey. The Berlin Wall was going up and The Bay of Pigs had just gone down. The failed invasion of Cuba by armed expats didn’t topple Castro but it sure ticked him off.
So in April, 1962 Castro says, “Hey Nikita, I’ve got an idea! Russia stations an arsenal of nuclear missiles in my yard, that’ll keep the Americans on their side of the fence and maybe make them reconsider handing your European neighbors nuclear warheads like they’re party favors!”
Khrushchev liked the idea and got right to work. Unfortunately, the US had been having some spy-plane issues, then there was a lot of bad weather and, well, the US didn’t really hear the doomsday alarm clock ticking until six months later. October 14th.
Over the next two weeks, things got real. Kennedy rounds up his boyz and forms an executive committee they called, what else, EXCOMM. Our intelligence agencies shifted into overdrive. Meanwhile, the US and USSR start shaking their fists at each other in public while frantically passing backchannel notes. The Russian ambassador actually held a secret meeting with Robert Kennedy in The Yenching Palace (a Washington DC Chinese restaurant).
EXCOMM says, here’s a list of alternatives starting at “Do nothing” and topping out with “invade Cuba and install a new government.” Kennedy decides to implement a blockade but, because a blockade is technically an act of war, he calls it a “quarantine.” They bump up U-2 spy-plane flights to one every two hours and when the CIA says they believe all the Soviet missiles in place on the island are online, our B-52 bombers are put on full aerial alert.
On October 22nd Kennedy goes on TV and lays out the threat.
On the 23rd the US goes to the UN
On the 24th Khrushchev and Kennedy exchange Nastygrams.
On the 25th the US Navy surrounded Cuba and raised military readiness to DEFCON 2; “war is imminent.”
On October 26th Castro tells Khrushchev, if Americans invade, he’s OK with a nuclear first strike, even though Cuba will be incinerated.
The situation was explosive and everyone involved was throwing off sparks. On the 27th of October a US U-2 was shot down so nerves were raw when the US Navy became aware of three Russian submarines in the area. What they didn’t know was that each was equipped with one thermo-nuclear torpedo. If they had known, they probably wouldn’t have started lobbing depth charges around Soviet Submarine B-59.
See, these three Soviet subs had sneaked up on us. They’d been running deep for four weeks and conditions aboard were miserable. The men were exhausted. Oxygen was low, CO2 levels were sky high and the internal temperature of this cold water sub steaming through the Caribbean had risen to 122˚F. And now they’re getting rocked side to side by the Americans! The captain of B-59 figured, “This is it! We’re at war. Let’s load up a ten-megaton firecracker and go out with a bang!”
The thing was, Soviet Navy regulation said all three senior officers on the sub had to agree to hit their buzzers. Well the captain and the political officer were “all in” but Vasily Arkhipov said hold up. “If they’d been trying to sink us they’d have been dropping big stuff and it wouldn’t be left of us, then right of us.” No, Arkipov figured they’re sending us a message so he convinced the Captain, in what could be WWIII, to surface. When they did, the US ships took no hostile action and when B-59 finally heard from Moscow they were instructed to break off and return home. On this day, October 28th, 1962, diplomatic efforts paid off and the two superpowers stepped back from the abyss.
Military historians agree, Vasily Arkhipov’s reason and restraint saved the world. Making him probably the most important man I never heard of.

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