Michael KreponVasili Alexandrovich Arkipov

The Soviet Navy viewed nuclear-tipped torpedoes as aircraft carrier killers. A Soviet Foxtrot class diesel submarine, B-59, had this ace-in-the-hole when it was being depth-charged to the surface by the U.S. Navy during the Cuban missile crisis. Did Adm. George Anderson, the Chief of Naval Operations (and the Navy’s version of Gen. Curtis LeMay) suspect that he was dealing with nuclear-armed submarines when his ships were aggressively enforcing the quarantine of Cuba? Wonks: Help me out here. There was much the U.S. intelligence community did not know during this crisis, including the presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba when the Kennedy administration was contemplating military options to take out missile sites. And no American official could possibly have known at that time that three officers on board the B-59 were conducting the most important vote in the history of the Nuclear Age, on whether to fire their nuclear-tipped torpedo or alternatively, so to speak, to go up with the ship.

We learned much later, after the Cold War was over, when Americans and Russians began to swap stories, that the Captain, Second Captain, and Deputy Political Officer on board the B-59 made a private compact over the possible use of their nuclear-tipped torpedo during the Cuban missile crisis. They were, of course, supposed to check back with Moscow before doing so, but it was hard for a diesel sub to call home while under attack. (For more on how the best laid plans for nuclear deterrence can go awry, Wonks-in-training can check out Scott Sagan’s The Limits of Safety.)

And so, on October 27, 1962, the same day that a U-2 was shot down over Cuba, the three officers voted. They promised each other that, in extremis, if they were unable to work through authorized channels, they would make their own decision about using their nuclear weapon. If all three voted in favor, they would do so. If the vote wasn’t unanimous, they would hold their fire. Two of the three officers voted to fire their torpedo. The third, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkipov, voted nay.

Arkipov should have been Time magazine’s Man of the Year, but Time’s editors, like the rest of us, were unaware of his remarkable contribution to Western civilization. Time voted for Pope John XXIII, instead. I’ve never seen a picture of Arkipov – maybe Jeffrey can find one for this post. He’s the unsung hero of the Cuban missile crisis.

Oral histories are only as reliable as the memories of story tellers. So if ACW readers have reason to believe these memories are deficient, please hold forth.

Comments

  1. Tim McDonnell (History)

    At the risk of seeming to nit-pick a great post, my understanding of the B-59 incident (based on Michael Dobbs’ /One Minute to Midnight/ is that the depth charges being used against B-59 were dummy or training charges. They could not have harmed the Soviet sub even with a direct hit, and their sound was different enough from the genuine article that this fact was apparent to B-59’s crew.

    This fact may have contributed to Arkhipov’s nay vote, but certainly does not diminish its significance.

  2. Matthew Hoey (History)

    Is this him? I think it might be. The name is very similar in english. There is a B59 mention as well. http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Архипов,_Василий_Александрович

  3. Matthew Hoey (History)

    Here is the page translated http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=ru&u=http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%25D0%2590%25D1%2580%25D1%2585%25D0%25B8%25D0%25BF%25D0%25BE%25D0%25B2,%25D0%2592%25D0%25B0%25D1%2581%25D0%25B8%25D0%25BB%25D0%25B8%25D0%25B9%25D0%2590%25D0%25BB%25D0%25B5%25D0%25BA%25D1%2581%25D0%25B0%25D0%25BD%25D0%25B4%25D1%2580%25D0%25BE%25D0%25B2%25D0%25B8%25D1%2587&ei=uvdqS72wI8OylAfIhbDcBA&sa=X&oi=translate&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBAQ7gEwAA&prev=/search%3Fq%3D%25D0%2590%25D1%2580%25D1%2585%25D0%25B8%25D0%25BF%25D0%25BE%25D0%25B2,%2B%25D0%2592%25D0%25B0%25D1%2581%25D0%25B8%25D0%25BB%25D0%25B8%25D0%25B9%2B%25D0%2590%25D0%25BB%25D0%25B5%25D0%25BA%25D1%2581%25D0%25B0%25D0%25BD%25D0%25B4%25D1%2580%25D0%25BE%25D0%25B2%25D0%25B8%25D1%2587%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dsafari%26rls%3Den

  4. MK (History)

    Thanks, Matthew. I think you’ve found him. His bio makes for an amazing screenplay.

  5. Matthew Hoey (History)

    You’re welcome! Thank you for sharing this amazing story. I had never heard it before. We should all start working on the script asap!

  6. Vigilis (History)

    Entertaining, but enlightening only to the naive.

    Deterrence as a national posture is superior to both passive capitulation and
    hostile aggression. As we look around, it has also obtained peace among the world’s superpowers and Europe’s fueding nations.

    Better that the best laid plans for nuclear deterrence go awry (in the end not so much, by the way) than the euphoric optimistim for arms control goes awry and we are left on the receiving end of B-59-like surprises from giants or minnows such as Iran, DPRK, etc.

  7. Bill (History)

    Very interesting. Here are the recollections of one of the B59 crew members. Apparently there were some other cool heads down there with Arkhipov.

    http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB75/asw-II-16.pdf

  8. Carey Sublette

    A personal footnote to this.

    “… on October 27, 1962, the same day that a U-2 was shot down over Cuba…”

    This shoot-down was the only fatality in the confrontation, and the pilot – Rudy Anderson – was my father’s college roommate at Clemson University.

  9. MK (History)

    Bill:
    Many thanks for pulling this piece of oral history from your files. Takes my breath away.

  10. sineva (History)

    •An interesting fact was that Nikolai Shumkov cammander of B-130 was the skipper who actually test fired 2 of those torpedoes[15kt] off of Novaya Zemlya and saw their destructive potential first hand.The problem with saying it was only training charges was that in a very tense situation like that its easy in the heat of the moment for both sides to make stupid mistakes or to suspect the worst,if you`re in a sub and you hear splashes followed by clicking then a detonation you`re going to assume its a depth charge attack,this is in fact what happened to capt Shumkov on oct30 1962,for all he knew a shooting war could have just broken out on cuba and the us navy was under orders to sink all soviet subs on sight,luckily the exec who had been through mock attacks before recognized what it was and was able to convince the capt of this,by the same token when Shumkovs B-130 released a decoy the sonarman on the uss Blandy thought that a torpedo had been fired luckily he realised his mistake.The story of the cuban missile crisis is truly a horrifying one,there but for the grace of god..
    The book I would reommend on this subject is October Fury by Peter A Hutchhausen,this tells the story from the russian submariners and us sailors perspectives and is in places a very scary and eye opening read

  11. Dwayne Day (History)

    The story of the Soviet submarines is recounted in the 2002 book October Fury, by Peter Huchthausen. I have not checked to see if he discusses the nuclear torpedoes, but the book contains first-hand accounts of the submarine captains.

  12. Linton Brooks (History)

    I was Weapons Officer on one of the destroyers enforcing the quarantine. I have no idea whether the Navy leadership was aware that there were nuclear weapons involved, but at the shipboard level we were not. Although I was not involved with this specific incident, I doubt the Navy was quite as aggressive as portrayed. My recollection is that our orders placed emphasis on avoiding incidents that could lead to hostilities. Thus, I doubt that depth charges were used, but rather what were in essence grenades.

    If a destroyer made contact with a Soviet submarine, the standard practice in the Atlantic Fleet of that era was to attempt to maintain contact until the submarine was compelled to surface to recharge batteries. I recall no different orders during the Cuban Missile Crisis and suspect that the surface ships involved were simply following this practice. Admiral Anderson was probably not directly involved; the era of detailed control of tactical details from Washington was well in the future. (Incidentally, I defer to Michael’s scholarship, but at the deckplate level the only similarity between Anderson and LeMay was that they both wore uniforms.)

    None of this alters the importance of the basic points that our failure to fully understand the situation could have had serious consequences and that when military forces are in contact, the potential for misunderstanding is frighteningly real.

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