Two men who saved the world

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov and Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov

Never heard of these two men? They are the reason why most of you were born, and why all of you are reading these lines — instead of fossilizing or spreading as ash across the globe. You owe your lives to them.

Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov and Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov were two Soviet soldiers, members of the armed forces. They served the world from utter destruction. You can spend some hours googling them, and get all the details of their stories — which I shall narrate in short.

Vasili Arkhipov was one of three commanders of a B-59 Soviet submarine which was part of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In October of 1962 the Soviet Union sent nuclear submarines to Cuba in order to be able to devastate American cities. This was in retaliation to the U.S. stationing nuclear missiles in Turkey, from where they could hit Moscow. The Americans knew there were Soviet submarines in the Caribbean waters and start using depth charges to try and make them surface.

There had been no contact between the submarine and Moscow for many days, and the vessel was hiding in waters too deep to enable radio monitoring. It was cut off from the world, and captain Savitsky felt doomed. He assumed that a war with the U.S. had already started and decided to launch a nuclear torpedo. With his submarine rocked by depth charges, Savitsky ordered his crew to prepare the nuclear weapon for launch — without authorization from Moscow. That would have vaporized a U.S. aircraft carrier and triggered a thermonuclear exchange on a global scale.

The second officer, Ivan Maslennikov, agreed to the launch, but Arkhipov refused. He told the captain that the American grenade-size depth charges were signals, a demand that they surface and identify themselves. Savitsky and Arkhipov argued, and then, if reports which I dearly want to believe are true, the following transpired: in order to launch a nuclear weapon all three commanding officers had to turn a key, simultaneously, in remote locks. Savitsky put his key into the launch panel, while Arkhipov put his into his mouth, and swallowed it. Now the only way to launch the missile would be to cut him open!

After that the diesel-powered Soviet submarine, which was designed for Arctic travel and was now crippled by barely endurable temperatures — 50° C, 120° F — was forced to rise to the surface, where it was met by a U.S. destroyer. The Americans didn’t board the submarine, or even inspect it. The Russians turned away from Cuba and returned to Russia. After initial angry criticism, Vasili, who was a hero for his actions in an earlier submarine accident, was actually praised and promoted for preventing a nuclear war.

Steven E. Maffeo, former associate director of the academic library at the U.S. Air Force Academy, has written a thoroughly gripping book on the incident in the Caribbean. Especially frightening is the scenario that Vasili Arkhipov painted for his captain during their dispute:

“The Amerikantsy will think that the Sovetskiy Soyuz [Soviet Union] has launched a nuclear attack against them. They will strike back with everything they have. Then, the Sovetskiy Soyuz will doubtless launch everything we have at the Amerikantsy. Hundreds of warheads will cross past each other in the air and in outer space, and hundreds of warheads will fly east and west in the bellies of jet bombers. The seven countries of our Warsaw Pact will be totally destroyed. Western Europe will no doubt be destroyed. Much of the United States — one-third? Maybe one-half? — will be destroyed. And on top of that, thick clouds of radioactive dust will encircle the earth. It will be a holocaust beyond imagination. Tens of millions of people will be killed, and tens of millions more will have radiation poisoning.”

Stanislav Petrov is the other person who must be credited with preventing global nuclear destruction. He was a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces and the duty officer at the command centre for the Oko nuclear early-warning station. The Oko (“Eye”) system used satellites in geosynchronous orbits to identify launches of ballistic missiles from the U.S. by detecting the exhaust plume. In September 1983 tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S. were at an all-time high, after the Soviet military had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 three week earlier. And on this day the Oko system suddenly reported an ICMB launch from U.S. soil — followed shortly by five more.

Petrov was aware that his country had 36,000 nuclear warheads, and that a full-scale nuclear counterstrike by the Soviets would kill around 50% of the US population — more than 100 million people. The U.S. had 23,000 nuclear warheads that would kill a similar number among the Soviet population. And hundreds of millions more would have died due to the disruption of global climate, leading to the collapse of agriculture. An international research institute calculated a potential death toll from starvation of around two billion.

Now, on September 26, 1983, it was Petrov’s job to report the detected missile launch to the Soviet high command. They would have had very little time to double-check the warning, or seek clarification from the US. And in case of an attack the Soviet nuclear doctrine at the time called for full nuclear retaliation. It would be the end of the world as we knew it.

But it wasn’t. Petrov decided that it was a false alarm. The main reason was that he believed that a first strike by the U.S. would have to be all-out, in order for it to blunt the inevitable Soviet counterstrike. Five missiles made no sense. No, it must be a malfunction of the Oko warning system, which was later confirmed. The false alarm was created by an alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds above North Dakota.

So Petrov was right, and he most likely prevented the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. If he had been wrong he would have been executed for treason — although who would have been there to carry out the sentence? After the event he was subject to intense questioning by his superiors, and reprimanded for not adequately reporting on the incident or the reasons for his decision. He received no reward, because his superiors were embarrassed by the faults discovered in the missile detection system. He died in 2017 at the age of 77.

At least he got a movie starring Kevin Costner.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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