In 1961, the United States undertook a series of unsuccessful campaigns in Cuba, attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro and his regime. These campaigns — for example, the Bay of Pigs invasion — ultimately failed. The Soviet Union, Cuba’s staunch ally at the time, reacted by working with Castro to build a secret nuclear weapons site on the island. Cuba is a stone’s throw away from the Continental United States, and had the base been completed, any nuclear missiles there would have been able to hit American soil.
On October 12, 1962, a U.S. recon plane captured images of the base being built, sending the White House (and the American people) into panic. The U.S. created a military quarantine of Cuba, denying the Soviets the ability to bring in any weapons, and insisting that the base be dismantled. The Soviets publicly balked, and anyone alive at the time (and old enough to remember) needs no refresher: the world was on the brink of nuclear war. But roughly two weeks later, on October 28, 1962, the two nations came to an agreement, staving off a result the world could not afford to have occur.
But if it weren’t for a Soviet naval officer named Vasili Arkhipov (pictured abve), there is a good chance none of us would be here today. The day before the Americans and Soviets found a middle ground, Arkhipov was aboard a submarine patrolling the waters near Cuba. American naval forces surrounded the submarine and began dropping depth charges — a tactic the American navy used to get submarines to surface, and not one intended to destroy the (assumed to be) enemy submarine. Unfortunately, the submarine’s captain either forgot about this tactic or was unaware of it, and — underwater, unable to contract Moscow — believed war had broken out. Soviet protocol at the time allowed for the use of nuclear torpedoes if the three highest ranking sailors on the ship believed it proper. The captain and a third officer concluded it was. Arkhipov, the second in command, objected — and, thankfully, prevailed. The ship surfaced without starting World War III.
Over twenty years later, nuclear war was barely averted once again. By the early 1980s, the Soviets had developed an early warning system which aimed to detect an incoming nuclear missile attack. The system allowed the Soviets to, if need be, respond with a retaliatory missile attack. Without such a system, the incoming missiles would likely destroy or disable the Soviet arsenal before it could be deployed. The protocol was simple: if the monitoring station discovered missiles incoming, the leadership there was to notify its superiors. The powers that be would then decide whether the U.S.S.R. should launch its own strike, and, given the tensions at the time, it is likely they would have — with a hair trigger, at that.
On September 26, 1983, the monitoring station detected an incoming missile. And then, it detected four more. Stanislav Petrov, the lieutenant colonel and ranking officer on site, did something incredible: he unilaterally decided that the monitoring equipment had erred, and he declined to report the “attack” to the Kremlin. Petrov based this belief on a few key factors: one, the equipment was very new and believed to be a bit buggy (although not to this degree); and two, Petrov was trained to believe that a U.S. strike would involve hundreds of warheads, not five.
Petrov turned out to be correct. The satellites were not functioning properly and the “missiles” were phantoms. Ground-based systems, a few minutes after the satellites erred, saw nothing, corroborating Petrov’s belief. But Petrov did not view himself a hero. Later in life, he’d say that he was just doing his job and, in fact (and perhaps too literally), he actually did nothing at all.
Bonus fact: During a sound check prior to giving a radio address in 1984, then President Ronald Reagan jokingly said into the microphone, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Contrary to popular belief, that audio was not actually broadcast over the airways. It did, however, get recorded and later leaked to the press. One can listen to the quip on Wikipedia, here.
From the Archives: Bombs Away: When the U.S. military lost a thermonuclear bomb.
Related reading: “At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times” by Larry Verstraete. Thirty-six accounts (including Petrov’s story) of people who made split-second, life-in-the-balance decisions. The book is geared toward children ages 9-12 and has only one review on Amazon (5 stars), but may be worth the risk at $4.62.
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