Vasili Arkhipov and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962

In one of his articles Max Tegmark, world renowned physicist and cosmologist, along with very serious other thinkers – including one Nobel prize winner – wants us to believe that we humans have to think seriously of the threat of machines and robots with artificial intelligence (AI). It seems that all the cartoons we read about or the films we see, like “Terminator” or “AI”, where machines take over human civilizations are not fiction – they are real threats that will happen in the future!

Of course, AI will first help us to resolve many of our problems of health, poverty, finance and pollution in a short span of time. Unfortunately that won’t be the end of that beautiful story. Intelligent machines and robots will go a step further; they will learn to replicate themselves, become more complex and will ultimately invade human civilization. So that human factor and decision will escape us – and our civilization as we know it now would cease to exist! It just looks like fiction, but it is not. That’s where Tegmark mentioned Vasili Arkhipov.

The name of this Russian admiral has come to light only recently thanks to the declassification of confidential military files – both in the USA and Russia.

In the sixties, the Americans had installed nuclear warheads in Turkey to surround their much-hated enemy the Soviet Union. In retaliation, the latter wanted to do the same by installing their nuclear arsenal in Cuba, but this was not to the liking of the Americans. And all this hate, misunderstanding and threats between the two superpowers finally led to what is now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the height of the Cold War.

In early October 1962, Soviet President Khrushchev had secretly ordered four nuclear submarines to leave their Baltic sea ports and head towards Cuba to protect their interest, all unknown to the Americans.

President Kennedy and McNamara, the then Secretary of State, were preparing themselves to barricade off the Cuban communist enemy from becoming a nuclear base so near to Washington and New York. But by that time the four Soviet submarines were already in international waters and receiving orders to be prepared for war, while other Soviet ships transporting nuclear arms were heading towards Cuba, the comrade in arms. JFK, in a final showdown, ordered some 11 American destroyers and aircraft carrier USS Randolph to barricade the oncoming Soviet fleet in the Atlantic. The whole world watched as these two superpowers were poised to ignite the third world war. The Americans argued that they were out to protect the free world; the Soviets were angered that all this was happening in international waters.

Matters were becoming tense inside the four submarines. They could not risk to surface to renew their batteries, and their engines used petrol. The air conditioners were working to the limit, yet the temperature was rising. In those days communication between far-off Moscow mission control and the Atlantic submarines was bad. However, the crew of the four submarines could eavesdrop on the urgency and threats aired on nearby American radios and televisions, including JFK’s speech threatening about imminent war with the Communists.

In a final showdown, the USA warships barred the way to the Soviet armada and realized, to their horror, that below them loomed one Soviet submarine, little knowing that there were in fact three more. The American warships started to send practice depth charges to force that one submarine, the B 59, to surface. Maybe true to their command the Soviet officers kept hiding in deep waters, making radio communication still worse, in spite of the rising temperature, discomfort, smell of kerosene and total lack of orders from home. In these circumstances many high-ranking officers of these submarines concluded that war had already started high above on the sea. They would have been more convinced of it had they heard McNamara, standing in the White House on 26th October 1962, telling one of his colleagues, as they watched the sun setting on Washington, “Maybe this is the last sunset we will see”. Worse was that the Soviet naval officers did not realize that the warning practice depth charges that the US warships were dropping all around them was just a deterrence meant to force them to surface. The Americans and Soviets naval war machine at that time did not use the same tactical warning war language.

Vasili Arkhipov was on B59, as second in command after the captain, but being responsible for the flotilla of the four submarines he was of the same grade as the captain. The latter also was sure that war had started on land and sea. Along with the Party’s political agent in B 59, he therefore agreed to respond to the American attack by making use of the “special weapon” on board of their submarine. At that time that was how a nuclear torpedo or missile was referred to. Very few crew members even knew that such a weapon was present on board.

Vasili Arkhipov and the other two had the keys to release nuclear mayhem and destroy the whole American fleet above them in the Atlantic in a nuclear mushroom. All three went in for the unlocking, but at the last minute Vasili Arkhipov retracted, argued against and refused to cooperate specially as there was no clear instructions from Moscow. It was possible that he had thought of his colleagues who died of cancer after a nuclear mishap or leakage in a previous incident on a submarine (K 19) some years earlier. He stood his ground in the face of the captain’s insistence and the B 59 was forced to surface. Most probably the other three other submarines also had their orders to retreat and return home.

When Arkhipov and colleagues reached back home they were harassed by their admiral, who told them that it would have been better if they had gone down with their submarines in the Atlantic!

The world had really come close to nuclear war on that 27th October. It was neither JFK statesmanship nor Khrushchev’s wisdom that had really saved our planet from nuclear catastrophe.

Nowadays Arkhipov is being hailed as a hero, as the man who single-handedly saved the world from a nuclear holocaust.

Max Tegmark had quoted Vasili Arkhipov to illustrate the importance of human empathy and feelings in solving human problems in case of dire emergencies. It is well to keep in mind that relying on intelligent machines in such circumstances might drive us to a point of no return.


* Published in print edition on 11 July 2014

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