In October 1962 the world experienced the most dangerous crisis in its history. As the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered Soviet nuclear armed missiles to be placed in Cuba to protect the island from possible American invasion, and redress the imbalance in the missile power between the United States and his country, US President John F Kennedy declared the naval blockade of Cuba. In the tense days and weeks that followed that decision, Kennedy and Khrushchev managed to avoid nuclear confrontation thanks to the one feature they shared – the fear of nuclear war.
Numerous books have been written on the history of the crisis since its resolution. Almost all of them are focused on the decision-making process in Kennedy’s White House. What is often lost in that analysis is the understanding that Kennedy and Khrushchev had limited control over the actions of their military and more than once lost control over the situation on the ground, on the seas and in the sky. On a number of occasions, the key decision on whether to start a shooting war that could eventually lead to the nuclear exchange lay not with them, but with their commanders in the theatre. It is not for nothing that a former US secretary of state, Dean Acheson, suggested that John Kennedy avoided war by “plain dumb luck”.
Few events in the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrate the degree of the danger caused by the actions of the individual commanders, and the importance of the “dumb luck,” in the avoidance of the nuclear war than the drama which played out in the late hours of October 27 and early morning of October 28 1962 when, in the Sargasso Sea, four Soviet nuclear-armed submarines approached the US quarantine line.
The world really was saved from nuclear war by dumb luck
On that night, American submarine-hunting ships attacked the Soviet Foxtrot class nuclear-armed submarine B-59 with practice charges, forcing it to the surface.
Once the submarine broke the surface, it was completely surrounded by American ships. As the sub’s captain Valentin Savitsky engaged the submarine’s diesel engines to recharge its batteries, he negotiated with the Americans by means of searchlight signals. Then an American airplane appeared over the B-59, dropping flares to activate its cameras. Assuming that he was under attack, Savitsky rushed down from the bridge into the submarine, giving the order to prepare the sub’s nuclear torpedo for firing. The torpedo, bearing a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead, might well have wiped out the entire US Navy force surrounding the Soviet Foxtrot. More importantly, it would have left John Kennedy in Washington with few options but to respond in kind to a nuclear attack.
The world really was saved from nuclear war by “dumb luck” – a searchlight employed by a Soviet signals officer got stuck in the submarine’s hatch. That gave enough time to another senior officer, Captain Vasily Arkhipov, who remained on the bridge, to see the Americans signalling apologies for the accident. It was not an attack after all. Arkhipov called off Savitsky’s order. In less than two days, alarmed by the news that his missile defences in Cuba had fired without orders from Moscow and shot down an American U-2 airplane, killing its pilot, Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw Soviet missiles from the island. The Soviet subs returned to their base.