Where would we be without Vasili Arkhipov? In fact, would we be here at all?
Who is Vasili Arkhipov you may ask?
Before I get to that, let me talk for a minute about the nuclear world we now live in. There are currently so many nuclear weapons on our small planet that we are literally living on a bomb – a bomb that could go off at any time.
North Korea is bristling with nuclear bombs. As a rogue nation, it is completely unpredictable. South Korea, Japan – and now, apparently North America – are all within range of North Korea’s nuclear missiles. We have no way of knowing what they intend to do.
North Korea has recently announced its willingness to hold talks with Donald Trump. We hope that this will lead to a denuclearized North Korea, since last year’s insult exchanges between President Trump and the “Dear Leader” were downright scary for the general population.
For some these insults may be amusing, except for the fact that – as both of these leaders keep reminding us – they each are in possession of rather large and potent buttons. A push of one button would instantly result in the pushing of the other button, and nuclear conflagration would be the result.
We wish President Trump well in these negotiations, but remind him that his comrade in bad haircuts probably has a few tricks left up his inscrutable sleeve.
Meanwhile, Iran and Israel both have nuclear weapons and they appear to be close to war. Israel reputedly has an Armageddon plan, if things are not going well. I would guess that Iran does as well. Israel enjoyed good relations with Iran, until Ayatollah Khomeini arrived on the scene, injecting a dose of white hot religious hatred and souring the relationship. The countries are now sworn enemies.
Not that far away, India and Pakistan seem relatively quiet, but are always just one rogue general away from a nuclear war. An incident in Kashmir, a terrorist attack on Mumbai, a Hindu-Muslim incident almost anything could spark an irked general to push that lethal button. We should remember that the Indians and Pakistanis were quite willing – and even enthusiastic – about slaughtering each other a generation or two ago.
And what about the countries or terrorist groups we don’t know about who may have these deadly weapons?
Did you know that not that many years ago, Israel bombed a nuclear weapon factory in Syria, destroying Syria’s ability to produce nuclear weapons? Take a minute to think about a Syria today with not just barrel bombs, but nuclear weapons. A sobering thought? Even further back, in 1981, Israel bombed a nuclear bomb factory Saddam Hussein was building. Imagine the devastation that mad man would have caused if his nuclear ambitions had been fulfilled.
Let us not forget Vladimir Putin, who has recently boasted about his nifty new weapons, that he says are more powerful than anything anyone else has in their stockpile. He seems to be inordinately proud of his ability -and apparent willingness- to blow us all to smithereens.
Which other unstable and dangerous countries are now in possession of these weapons, or currently plotting to get their hands on them? Does ISIS have a dirty bomb, or plans to get one? What other evil group out there in this dangerous world has a plan to get their hands on one? We simply don’t know.
The Slim Pickens character in Dr. Strangelove – whooping it up as he rides that big nuke to destination Earth – comes to mind in these dangerous times.
Alas, this brings me to Vasili Arkhipov. Who was he?
He was a true Russian gentleman who managed -in Kipling’s words – “to keep his head while those around him were losing theirs”.
He might also be the reason why we are still here. Let me explain:
Arkhipov came to our aid in October, 1962, in the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember that time well. The world held its collective breath as we all listened for the sounds of the siren announcing that the world would soon come to a end. Kennedy and Khrushchev were rattling sabres at each other except that the sabres they rattled were tons of nuclear weapons. Students partied all night, not knowing if there would be a tomorrow. The world was a hair’s breadth from annihilation.
That was when Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.
Arkhipov was in a submarine off the coast of Cuba, where he was second in command. The American Navy was dropping depth charges that exploded close to the submarine. Conditions on board were intolerable, and everyone was at the breaking point. The air supply was contaminated, blasts shook the vessel, and all on board thought that they were going to die.
What the Americans did not know was that the submarine was armed with a nuclear tipped missile. If that missile had been fired, it would almost certainly have resulted in a nuclear conflagration that might well have wiped out all life on our planet. At the very least, it would have resulted in a world far different from the comfortable, centrally heated one we live in today. A cave, with a can of beans, and a pail for a toilet, would have been more what modern life would have looked like.
The ship’s captain, who thought that the world was already at war, was ready to push his nuclear button.
It was the calm and cool Arkhipov who talked him out of it. The captain did not push the button. As a result, we are still here.
We owe so much to Mr. Arkhipov, and yet he is not well known to many of us. A song by a heavy metal band has been written about him. It is called “The Arkhipov Calm”.
We can only hope that today’s leaders are humming that tune when they have the urge to push the button.