Where would we be without Vasili Arkhipov? Would we be here at all?
Who is Vasili Arkhipov?
Before I get to that, let’s talk about the dangerous world we live in.
North Korea is bristling with nuclear bombs. The rogue nation is completely unpredictable. South Korea, Japan – and, 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 recently announced its willingness to hold talks with U.S. President Donald Trump. We hope this will lead to a denuclearized North Korea, since last year’s insult exchanges between Trump and Kim Jong-un were downright scary.
These insults may be amusing except for the fact that – as both leaders keep reminding us – they possess rather potent buttons. A push of one would instantly result in the pushing of the other, followed by nuclear conflagration.
We wish Trump well in these negotiations but remind him that his comrade in bad haircuts probably has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Meanwhile, Iran and Israel have nuclear weapons and appear to be close to war. Israel reputedly has an Armageddon plan if things aren’t going well. I would guess Iran does as well. Israel enjoyed good relations with Iran until Ayatollah Khomeini arrived, injecting a dose of white-hot religious hatred and souring the relationship. The countries are now sworn enemies.
Indian 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 the push of a lethal button.
And the countries or terrorist groups we don’t know about that may have these deadly weapons?
Not many years ago, Israel bombed a nuclear weapon factory in Syria, destroying Syria’s ability to produce nuclear weapons. Imagine a Syria with nuclear weapons. That’s a sobering thought.
In 1981, Israel also hit a nuclear bomb factory Saddam Hussein was building Iraq. Imagine the devastation that madman would have caused if his nuclear ambitions had been fulfilled.
Let’s not forget Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently boasted about new weapons that he says are more powerful than anything anyone else has. He seems inordinately proud of his ability – and apparent willingness – to blow us all to smithereens.
Which other unstable and dangerous countries are in possession of these weapons or plotting to get their hands on them? Does the Islamic State (IS) have a dirty bomb? What other evil group in this dangerous world plans to get their hands on one?
The Slim Pickens character in the movie Dr. Strangelove – whooping it up as he rides that big nuke to destination Earth – comes to mind in these dangerous times.
And that brings me to Vasili Arkhipov.
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 we’e still here. Arkhipov came to our aid in October 1962 in the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
We held our breath listening for the sounds of sirens announcing that the world would soon come to an end. U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were rattling sabres – or 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.
Arkhipov was second in command in a Soviet submarine off the coast of Cuba. The Americans were 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 they were going to die.
What the Americans didn’t know was that the submarine was armed with a nuclear-tipped missile. If that missile had been fired, it almost certainly would have resulted in a nuclear conflagration that might well have wiped out all life on our planet. At very least, it would have resulted in a world far different from the comfortable, centrally-heated one we live in today.
The submarine’s captain, who thought the world was already at war, was ready to push his nuclear button.
But calm, cool Arkhipov talked him out of it. As a result, we’re still here.
We owe so much to Arkhipov, yet he’s not well known. A song by the heavy-metal band Converge, called The Arkhipov Calm, celebrates him.
We can only hope that today’s leaders pause and hum the tune when they feel the urge to push the button.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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