In the last two weeks of October 1962, the world came closer to nuclear warfare than it ever has. For 14 tense days, US President John Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stood eyeball to eyeball, each with his hand on the nuclear button. In the end, both blinked; but there was one particular point in that confrontation when the decision was taken out of their hands, when the nuclear attack could have been launched by a junior Soviet military officer–and when a man named Vasiliy Arkhipov stepped in and saved the world.
The Cold War object of contention in 1962 was the island of Cuba. Ruled by the dictator Fulgencio Batista, Cuba had been the vacation hotspot of the Caribbean, with wealthy American tourists and jetsetters lounging in the opulent casinos and hotels in Havana.
In 1959, however, a Cuban lawyer named Fidel Castro, at the head of a band of bearded guerrillas, succeeded in overthrowing Batista. At first, the US looked on in benign neglect, considering it as just another Latin American dictator overthrown by his own people. By 1960, however, Castro declared himself a socialist, nationalized and confiscated American-owned property in Cuba, and openly allied with the Soviet Union.
In the midst of the Cold War, the United States could not allow the Russians to have a base so close to the US, and the CIA began a whole series of efforts to overthrow Castro and install a pro-US strongman again. Some of the CiA’s efforts were, quite frankly, nutty–including a plot to dust Castro with a powder that would make his beard fall out, and another plot to spike his drink with LSD so he would give an incoherent speech and discredit himself. Far more deadly in intention, however, were the various plans carried out jointly with the American Mafia (which had owned all the confiscated Cuban casinos) to assassinate Castro. When President Kennedy took office in 1961, the CIA already had a covert plan in place to use an army of Cuban exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and provoke a popular uprising to oust Castro. The plan failed disastrously, and the entire brigade was killed or captured.
In the wake of the Bay of Pigs failure, the US military carried out a constant surveillance of Cuba, launching periodic overflights using the U-2 spy plane. In September 1961, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the use of American military forces in Cuba if American interests were threatened. The Pentagon planned a large-scale military exercise in the Caribbean to take place in October 1962.
To the Soviet Union and Cuba, all signs seemed to point to an imminent American invasion. Determined not to lose his only base in the Western Hemisphere, Khrushchev decided to send large amounts of military supplies to Cuba, including MiG jet fighters, Il-28 bombers, anti-aircraft surface-to-air (SAM) missiles, and other arms. And, in a calculated move, he also decided to introduce medium and long-range nuclear missiles.
The arrival in Cuba of growing amounts of Soviet military hardware was detected by the US in early October 1962, and increased U-2 overflights and satellite reconnaissance were ordered. On October 14, a U-2 flight photographed what was clearly a Soviet SS-4 nuclear missile site. Subsequent spy planes detected SS-5 sites. There were also long-range Ilyushin bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons to the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun–though at this time everything was kept secret, and the American public had no idea it was now under a nuclear gun.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously recommended the bombing and immediate invasion of Cuba, but the political leadership countered that this would provoke the Soviets to invade West Berlin and lead to nuclear world war. Instead, it was decided by Kennedy to impose a naval “quarantine” on Cuba, in which ships from the American Navy and from various Latin American countries would stop all inbound vessels and search them for missiles. Kennedy was gambling that the Soviet Union would not use force to prevent their ships from being stopped. At the time, the President did not know that the Russian ships were being escorted by Soviet attack submarines. He also did not know that in addition to the missiles, the USSR had already placed a number of active tactical nuclear weapons, including aerial bombs and short-range rockets, in Cuba, and had authorized their use, under restricted circumstances, in the event of an American invasion. The nuclear abyss was far closer than either side realized at the time.
Although Kennedy had attacked the Eisenhower-Nixon Administration during the 1960 campaign for supposedly allowing a dangerous “missile gap” to develop, giving the Russians a chance for nuclear superiority, when he became President, Kennedy learned the actual reality–it was the United States who had a huge advantage. The US possessed some 5,000 nuclear weapons capable of reaching Russia, while the Soviets had fewer than 350, including the 40 launchers in Cuba, that could reach the US. Nevertheless, even 350 nuclear weapons would be enough to remove the United States as a functional society. If the Cuban Missile Crisis led to a full-scale nuclear war, the results would be catastrophic.
On October 23, over a week after the missile sites had been found, Kennedy broke the secrecy and, in a televised address, told the nation about the missiles and about the naval quarantine. It would take about three more days for the approaching Soviet freighters to reach Cuba. Messages from the Soviet Union declared that the “blockade” was illegal and that the Soviet ships had been instructed to ignore it.
On October 25, the American military was placed at DEFCON 2 (“Defense Condition 2”), the step immediately preceding full-scale war.
That same day, at the United Nations Security Council, the Soviet Ambassador to the UN denied that the USSR had placed any missiles in Cuba (like the Soviet Ambassador to the US, he had not been told of their existence by Moscow). This prompted US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson to produce the U-2 aerial photographs of the missile bases.
The next day, the most crucial incident in the entire crisis occurred, which was completely unknown at the time and was not revealed until decades later, when the Soviet archives became available to researchers. The destroyer USS Beale had tracked a Soviet submarine, the B-59, inside the quarantine zone, and dropped a number of practice depth charges to force it to surface. Unknown to the Americans, the B-59–a “Foxtrot” class attack sub–was armed with a nuclear torpedo, and was under orders to use it if attacked. With its batteries almost dead and American depth charges exploding all around, the submarine faced a stark choice–either surface and be vulnerable to capture or American fire, or attack immediately with its torpedo. According to Soviet reports, the submarine’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, and his political officer, Vasiliy Arkhipov, argued furiously, with Captain Savitsky wanting to attack and Arkhipov wanting to surface and retreat. Savitsky went so far as actually arming and loading the nuclear torpedo. But although Arkhipov, as political officer, was only second-in-command of the B-59, he was actually in command of the entire submarine group in the area, and therefore outranked the Captain. So Arkhipov ordered Savitsky to unload the torpedo and surface, and the US destroyers then escorted the sub out of the quarantine zone. It was a decision that single-handedly prevented World War Three and saved the world.
But the crisis wasn’t over yet. On October 27, a Soviet surface-to-air missile shot down an American U-2 over Cuba, killing the pilot. War seemed imminent. The US began moving troops and aircraft into Tampa Bay for the planned bombing and invasion of Cuba, and also placed its forces worldwide on notice to prepare for nuclear war if the Russians responded with military force.
During this time, a flurry of diplomatic action was happening behind the scenes. On October 25, ABC news reporter John Scali was contacted by Soviet diplomat Alexander Formin (who was in reality the KGB Station Chief in DC) who asked Scali to use his government contacts to sound out a proposal–the USSR would withdraw its missiles from Cuba if the US in turn agreed not to invade Cuba. Later that same day, a message arrived from Khrushchev (now known as “the first message”) offering the same solution.
The next day, however, while the Americans were considering this offer, a “second message” arrived from Khrushchev, now declaring that the USSR would remove its missiles from Cuba only if the United States removed its own intermediate-range Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy. Although the US had itself already begun making inquiries to its allies about making a similar proposal, this new message indicated a hardening of the Soviet attitude, and Kennedy pessimistically concluded that war was now all but certain. But in a last-ditch desperate attempt, Kennedy decided to simply ignore the “second message” entirely and instead respond to Khrushchev’s first offer, agreeing that the US would make a no-invasion pledge in exchange for the UN-supervised removal of the missiles. To everyone’s relief, Khrushchev agreed to talk.
With this breakthrough, the crisis ended. On October 28, Khrushchev announced that the missiles would be withdrawn. In exchange, the US announced that it would not invade Cuba or interfere in Cuba’s internal affairs. And in a separate diplomatic agreement that was never announced publicly, the US also agreed to withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy.
By November 1962, the crisis was over. The only one not happy with the terms of the deal was Fidel Castro, who had not been consulted by anyone during the entire negotiation.
Vasiliy Arkhipov, the man who saved the world, went on to become commander of the Kirov Naval Academy and retired as a Vice Admiral. He died in 1998.