Not everyone who managed to change the world is famous. It is possible to do something absolutely monumentally world-shaking and not receive any attention for it. In fact, I’ll give you a name: Vasili Arkhipov. It’s possible that this guy is the only reason any of us are alive today. Seriously.
It was October 27, 1962, the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets had nukes in Cuba aimed at the US and more were on the way. John F. Kennedy responded by setting up a blockade around the island.
The USS Randolph was one of the ships in charge of enforcing the blockade. They spotted a Soviet sub that was sent to protect the flotilla of Russian ships loaded with missiles approaching the island. This one particular sub–a Foxtrot class B-59–was armed with its own nuclear missiles. Arkipov was the second in command.
The Randolph began dropping depth charges in an effort to get the sub to surface. B-59 suffered damage. The crew couldn’t breathe. They wanted to fight back. Captain Valentin Savitsky tried to raise Soviet central command for permission to return fire, but the transmissions wouldn’t go through.
Because they’d been cruising submerged for days, they hadn’t anything from anyone. But they had been monitoring American civilian broadcasts which were offering non-stop coverage of the crisis. And now they were under attack. Maybe the long-feared nuclear war had finally begun. If that was the case, shouldn’t they launch their missiles?
Captain Savitsky was in favour of an attack. So was political officer Ivan Maslennikov. But in order to launch the nukes, Savitsky and Maslennikov also needed agreement from Arkhipov.
“What do you say, Vasili? Do we engage the Americans with our special weapon?”
Arkipov took a deep breath and said “Nyet. We do not fire. We have no proof we are at war. What if we’re wrong? If we launch, we risk starting an all-out nuclear war which will wipe out all life on the planet.”
Captain Savitsky wasn’t happy, but rules were rules and he ordered that the crew stand down. No nukes would be fired that day. And when the sub did surface, it was confirmed that hostilities had not commenced. This is why Vasili Arkipov is widely regarded as the man who single-handedly prevented a global nuclear catastrophe on October 27, 1962. Yet how many people know his name?
Now let’s take a big pivot into music. What sort of unsung heroes might we find there?
Songs heard on this program:
- David Bowie, Heroes
- XTC, Real by Reel
- Portishead, Glory Box
- Nirvana, Lithium
- Rage Against the Machine, Bulls on Parade
- TONTO, Cybernaut
- Depeche Mode, Just Can’t Get Enough
Eric Wilhite has this playlist.
Don’t forget that you can get the podcast version of this podcast through iTunes or wherever you get your on-demand audio.
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