50 years ago, Vasili Arkhipov single-handedly prevented World War III.
It was at the height of the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962 and Russia had just secretly sent four submarines to Communist Cuba. Arkhipov was aboard one of those subs, B59, and was one of only a handful of men who knew that each one of the ships carried nuclear weapons as strong as the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.
During their journey, American forces – via helicopters, airplanes and battleships – spotted the fleet of Russian subs and aimed to halt their progress. In an effort to avoid capture, Arkhipov’s sub dove deeper into the ocean, enduring worsening conditions and warning grenades from the Americans above.
The captain of the B59, Valentin Savitsky, thought they were under attack and wanted to unleash his ship’s nuclear weapons. Between high tensions and the explosive capabilities of those weapons, any sort of attack would have ignited a third World War.
That’s when Arkhipov’s cooler head prevailed. As commander of the fleet, Arkhipov had the final veto on any ship decisions, and he decided the Russians should retreat without using any weapons. Arkhipov knew the volatility of his ship’s weapons and acted in the best interest of his submarine’s, and his country’s, safety.
While his cool-headedness was not immediately recognized when they returned home, his true story is now known. Who knows how history would’ve turned out had he acted differently.