We live in an age of cynicism and desperation, beset by crises that appear insurmountable. Whether it is political strife, economic upheaval, climate change or tensions with other nuclear-armed states, the problems appear to be so large that no single person can make a difference.
And yet, there are times when one person can change the entire course of human history.
Vasili Arkhipov was one such person. Born the child of peasants on January 30, 1926 near Moscow, his life was service to his country and ultimately the human race.
Arkhipov began serving in Russian submarines soon after World War II. Rising through the ranks he was executive officer of the Hotel-class K-19 in 1961 when it had a leak in its reactor core; the entire crew was irradiated and all members of the engineering crew died within a month of the accident. His bravery during the accident was recognized by his superiors. The 2002 film, K-19 Widowmaker, dramatizes the events of that accident.
A year later, he was commander of a flotilla of four Foxtrot-class submarines that deployed to Cuban waters before the start of what came to be known as the Cuban missile crisis. He was onboard the B-59, which was detected by US destroyers. Signaling depth charges were dropped to force the sub up to the surface.
The stress of the depth charges; the loss of the air conditioning system; the high levels of carbon dioxide due to being unable to surface; and having no communications from Moscow created what could only have described as hellish conditions. The captain of the sub wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo.
The decision to launch nuclear weapons required a vote of the sub’s captain, political officer, and Arkhipv due to his being on board as flotilla commander. The other two voted to launch – only Arkipov dissented.
By some accounts there was screaming as well as punches thrown. In the end, his arguments that the depth charges were missing them and less explosive than ones meant to sink them, combined with his reputation from the K-19, led to him convincing the captain not to launch. Then due to their batteries being nearly depleted, he convinced the captain to surface and then return to the Soviet Union.
One can only speculate, but it’s impossible to believe that once the first tactical nuke was launched escalation to general nuclear war could have been avoided – resulting in what we know now as nuclear winter with hundreds of millions dead and the destruction of all modern societies.
In his later life, he commanded submarines, rose to the rank of admiral, commanded the Kirov Naval Academy, and retired as a vice admiral in the 1980s.
Arkhipov died August 19, 1998 at the age of 72, the victim of kidney cancer that was caused by the accident of the K-19.
The shy, humble man embraced his humanity and saved the world that day by looking at the facts and not letting emotion carry away his judgement. That is a lesson that should be remembered by all those in positions of power.
Think about everything you have done and seen in your life. Then realize without Vasili Arkhipov you would have not lived the life you’ve had.