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Vasili Arkhipov – Soviet Navy Officer Who Prevented Nuclear Strike in 1962 (wikipedia.org)
92 points by jayeshsalvi on Dec 24, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 19 comments

Stanislav Petrov is another Soviet officer who saved the world in 1983: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov

The first time someone has won major recognition for literally doing nothing? A remarkable story.

"it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that's all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. 'So what did you do?' she asked me. 'Nothing. I did nothing.'"

I agree, so much saved with such little effort.

What's even more remarkable is how he was able to come to the conclusion that it was a false alarm in such a short amount of time. It takes me longer to pick a cereal for breakfast!

It's interesting that he was on board the infamous K-19 submarine when it had a failure in the nuclear reactor leading to the deaths of several crew members. One wonders whether that experience influenced his decision not to launch the nuclear torpedoes during the Cuban missile crisis.

Maybe I'm missing something here, but given the monumental impact of his actions, why didn't win something like the Nobel Peace Prize? Instead he's largely forgotten and unknown.

It is very hard to give the Nobel Peace Prize to serving military officers. It isn't the sort of award you give to people who carry guns to work. You can give it to them on day one for stopping a war, only then on day two see them ordered by their superiors to participate in one.

That same reasoning would have prevented Arafat and Obama's Peace Prizes. I don't think it's an insuperable argument.

Mostly the problem was that nobody know about the secret Russian military records until decades later.

Neither Obama nor Arafat should have received a Noble Prize. You should receive the prize only if you have a long track record of working for peace which neither had done when they received the prize.

Yet here we are.

Arafat and Obama aren't military officers per se. They are the heads of their respective forces and therefore cannot be ordered by anyone to do much of anything. A naval officer is something very different than a president. But I do agree that it is awkward to give such an award to people currently heading armies.

I believe the information about the proposed launch was not known to the public until (long) after his death.

I always wondered what american sub would do in such situation. Imagine China would start dropping explosives on sub near Taiwan.

Same here. I couldn't believe that the US ships were dropping explosives to force the Russian sub to surface. If another force did that to a US vessel, I can only imagine the newly elected president's response. (Immediately after his barrage of angry tweets).

Why do we know of several Soviet citizens who saved us by not following orders to launch nukes, but no Americans?

The Soviet officers we know about did not refuse to follow orders to launch nukes. Arkhipov was following a protocol that was in place precisely to prevent a single person from authorizing the use of nuclear weapons. We do know about several incidents in the US in which responders had to deal with a false alarm:


There was one story that came out recently about an incident at US's nuclear base in Okinawa but that account is now being challenged by several former officers:


Actions of these people are somewhat similar to actions of whistle blowers and apparently those are either jailed or chased into exile...

I wish we knew the Hacker News equivalent for the army people of US and Russia who are in charge of the launch codes. I would post this link there.

Disclaimer: I don't know what I'm talking about. I'm a civilian, all I know is gathered from various books/articles/blog posts.

First off, the guy is a hero, and one can say he saved the world. But I think he only did his job, the way he was trained to do it. He didn't do anything that was against his training, or duty, or doctrine, and very likely he didn't take personal/career risks either.

Obviously nobody knows exactly what happened in the confines of that submarine at the time the vote of cast for fire or hold. But one can make some informed guesses.

1962 was early days in the MAD (mutually assured destruction) strategy, and the strategy itself was probably quickly evolving. However, I guess at all times during the cold war there were 3 principles either explicitly or implicitly stated, that the officers with the finger on the trigger (of the nukes) had to follow:

1. Launch the nukes if ordered by the president following the correct protocol (failure to do so is probably the gravest case of disobeying a direct order, hence court martial and then very likely death penalty) 2. Do not launch the nukes first, if not under direct orders, even if you come under (non-nuclear) fire 3. If nuclear war has started: 3a. If your mission is counter-strike (e.g. you man an SLBM-armed sub) then do so, without waiting for orders (assume the central command is dead, this is the "A" from "MAD") 3b. If your mission is different, then use your judgment

This case was clearly not 1 above: they did not have orders to launch nuclear attack. In fact that was the root of the whole problem: they were deep under water, and couldn't communicate with central command.

The only ambiguity was whether nuclear war already started or not. In both situation, the correct way to respond was to surface, which is as far as we know what Arkhipov voted for.

First, what did they know: that they had been located by the US submarine defense which dropped depth charges on them. Now that in itself was a signal the war didn't start: if the US Navy meant business, they would've sent torpedoes (potentially nuclear ones). Depth charges were a little naughty game sailors of one navy would play on the submariners of the opposite navy, to make them surface, and embarrass them a bit.

Even so, depth charges, if detonated to closely, could be deadly, so it was not all fun and games, especially not when you were on the receiving end.

So that's where you are, what you know. How would you proceed? What was the likely protocol?

B-49 was an SLBM-armed submarine, not sure if it was armed at the time, but very likely, given that it was in the middle of the Cuban crisis. So it's likely that part of their mission was retaliation, in case US had launched its nukes.

In order to launch, they needed to surface (it was before the times they could launched submerged). That was not what the vote was about, it was only about sending a nuclear torpedo towards the destroyer that was hunting them.

So I think, Arkhipov told them something like this: "what do we have to lose if we surface (aside from face): if war started, we'll know for sure, and we can launch our torpedo at the time, and then launch our missiles, as per the mission. if the war didn't start, we avert nuclear war. if at any point we see a torpedo coming our way (on the sonar) we launch our torpedo (but even that is iffy, since we can't know if that torpedo is nuclear or not, the only thing we know is that is an act of war, but it could be conventional war)."

So my guess is that the vote was not about launch now or never, but launch now or wait a bit longer, and Arkhipov persuaded them to wait. Once they were on the surface, they learned the war didn't start, and they went home.

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