The Dweller is always on the lookout for somewhere better to live, but given that Donald Trump just announced his intention to break the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, we thought this might be a good moment to look back on the time 56 years ago when President John F. Kennedy declared that US intelligence agencies had discovered Soviet intermediate range nuclear ballistic missile sites under construction in Cuba, marking the beginning of what became known as The Cuban Missile Crisis.
How close did we really come to nuclear war – to having nowhere left to live?
American author and historian Douglas Gilbert guest blogs in this piece. Here’s a brief extract from his answer:
A Soviet submarine came within a hair’s breadth of launching a nuclear torpedo at the US Navy, which would have triggered all-out nuclear war, but that news was hidden until 2002.
October 27, 1962 — later designated as Black Saturday by the Kennedy White House — shaped up to be a dangerous and horrifying day in terms of a nuclear apocalypse. The tension of impending disaster encircled the globe and tightened as the doomsday moment crept forward. The highest peacetime defense readiness conditions prevailed on both sides, one step shy of war. The slightest provocation could tip the fragile balance beyond the point of no return. The US Strategic Air Command targeted fifty-five hundred bundles of nuclear wrath at the Red Menace, with nearly three thousand nuclear warheads aimed at targets in the Soviet Union, awaiting the launch command. The Pentagon’s Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the nuclear order of battle, called for launching the complete nuclear weapon inventory against a thousand sites.
After days of being dogged by Task Group Alpha, Captain Valentin Savitsky, commanding officer of B-59 became convinced that all-out war had broken out. He ordered his nuclear torpedo to be prepared for launch. (Captain Nicholai Shumkov on the B-139 also ordered his nuclear torpedo to be made ready and the torpedo tube to be flooded, but his “special” weapons officer passed out when he heard the command and was unable to carry it out.) Captain Savitsky lost his composure in the asphyxiating madness and screamed, “The war has already started up there, and we are down here doing somersaults. We’re going to blast them now. We’ll die, but we will sink them all. We won’t disgrace our Navy or shame the fleet.”
One man, Vasili Arkhipov, who had quelled a near mutiny aboard the infamous K-19, stepped forward. Arkhipov challenged Savitsky’s orders and convinced Savitsky to release a single sonar ping to test the American resolve to kill their submarine. With explosions deafening their ears and extreme heat broiling their brains, they argued. While their ship’s crew was passing out from oxygen deprivation and heat exhaustion, they expended their remaining strength to make a decision. With the fate of their nation and all the world at stake, they decided to save the world, to prevent its immediate consensual devastation by Armageddon. They defied death and their superiors by not initiating the act that would destroy hundreds of millions of lives and threaten everyone who might live beyond that moment.
Had Captain Second Rank Vasili Aleksandrovich Arkhipov not intervened, a nuclear blast would have erupted in the Sargasso Sea. Every nation would have perceived that they were under attack, the Soviet forces, the American forces, Havana, Moscow and Washington D. C. President Kennedy had announced to the world five days earlier in his speech on October 22, “It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” Sixty Soviet ballistic missiles tipped with megaton nuclear warheads, a hundred tactical nukes and forty thousand Soviet troops had been placed in Cuba.
The greatest US hero of all time was a Russian naval officer that almost no one knows, who stood stone-steadfast at the centroid of international absurdity, beneath the sea against a myriad of apocalyptic weaponry that powerful nations arrayed against the world at the most treacherous moment of the human epoch.