On October 14, 1962, a U.S. U-2 spy plane flying over Cuba revealed that the Soviet Union was building ramps for the installation of missiles with nuclear warheads. President Kennedy immediately ordered a naval blockade of Cuba. The most serious crisis since the beginning of the Cold War began: for thirteen, endless, days the Soviet Union and the United States faced off against one another, coming close to war. The whole world waited with bated breath. And indeed, not only did we get close to World War III, but also to nuclear Armageddon! The reason that none of this came to pass was the cool-headedness of a Soviet captain, Vasily Arkhipov (and “perhaps” also, quite independently, of his American counterpart, William Bassett, although we have only a posthumous testimony).
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, from many quarters comparisons have been made with that that crisis 60 years ago: indeed there are not a few commonalities, but also many points of difference. History is a great teacher, in fact it is the only guide we have for the present, but it is necessary to put it in context.
At that time, 15 years after the end of World War II (and the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), there was no international agreement on arms control, much less on the nuclear arsenals that were becoming the focus of military confrontation between the two blocs. By about 1960, the U.S. had about 30,000 nuclear warheads, the USSR about 5,000, enough for total devastation: intercontinental missiles were in their infancy, and the USSR had only about 20 capable of reaching U.S. territory. Britain built their bomb in 1952; France in 1960 (in collaboration with Israel); China did not reach that point until 1964. Incidentally, the Doomsday Clock established in 1947, had touched 2 minutes to Midnight (the metaphor for the end of the world) in 1953 with the Korean War (when indeed McArthur wanted to drop nuclear bombs on the North), but by 1960 it had been reset to 7 minutes, and in 1963 to 12 minutes, so it does not record the threat in 1962, which in fact was only known many years later; here is the first difference to the current situation.
Also at that time, in 1959 the United States had deployed missiles with nuclear warheads capable of striking the Soviet Union in Italy, at Gioia del Colle (Apulia, South Italy), and in Turkey in great secrecy. Of course Moscow suspected and it could be argued that it knew, but as there were no spy satellites at the time, and only the U.S. had U-2 spy planes capable of flying high over other countries, it can therefore be argued (certainly not justified) that Khrushchev’s decision in 1962 to secretly deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba was an act of defence, albeit an extremely risky one; and this is where there is, in my view, an analogy to the present, the expansion of NATO (a nuclear alliance) eastward to Russia’s borders, which Moscow perceived as a threat. However, one might ask how the Cold War situation would have developed if the existence of Soviet missiles in Cuba had only been discovered when it was done, and the nuclear threat had been balanced, between US missiles in Italy and Turkey, and Soviet missiles in Cuba? Although this is a rhetorical question, as history is not made of “ifs”. “Perhaps” the forced push for nuclear disarmament agreements would have happened much sooner.
There is also another aspect to consider in assessing Washington’s behaviour back in 1962. Throughout the crisis, from October 14 to 28, the U.S. General Staff insisted on military action to eliminate the missile ramps before they became operational: little did they know that there were already 140 Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba!
Another thing the U.S. commanders ignored is that in the meantime Khrushchev had sent several submarines to Cuba escorting merchant ships bound for the island, each equipped with a torpedo boat with a 10 kt nuclear warhead (slightly less than the Hiroshima one). The team of four diesel-powered submarines was under the command of Captain Vasily Arkhipov, who personally was on the flagship B-59, but not its commander. On each submarine, the eventual decision to launch the nuclear torpedo required the consent of the commander and the political officer: but on the B-59, the consent of the commander of the entire squadron, namely Arkhipov, was also required. And this is where the dramatic affair is triggered that became known only many years later.
It was on that fateful October 27, 1962, that a U.S. naval team spotted the submarine B-59 in international waters and began an all-out hunt to force it to surface. Tensions on board were sky-high. The Arctic Fleet’s submarine ventilation system malfunctioned in the Atlantic; the temperature inside the submarine rose to 45-50 degrees. Carbon dioxide levels also rose; the crew (78 members) were hardly able to breathe.
It was impossible to contact Moscow, and under pursuit of the Americans, the captain of the B-59, Savitsky, was convinced that war had broken out. He didn’t want to sink without a fight, so he decided to launch a nuclear warhead at the aircraft carrier. We will die too, but we will take them with us. The political officer agreed with the captain, but on the flagship B-59, Arkhipov’s consent was also needed; World War III, nuclear war, depended on his decision. And Arkhipov objected to, reasoned with and convinced the commander.
On that October 27, the crisis was at its height. A U.S. U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba and another, over Russia, was almost intercepted. Kennedy negotiated for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for a promise not to invade the island again (as the U.S. had done a year earlier by organizing the landing of Cuban counterrevolutionaries at the Bay of Pigs). The Soviet freighters turned back and on October 28 Khrushchev announced that he had ordered the removal of the missiles from Cuba.
Arkhipov convinced Commander Savitsky to surface the B-59; he refused U.S. fighter assistance and headed for Russia. His mission had failed.
Arkhipov continued to serve in the Soviet Navy; his role in having saved the world remaining unknown until shortly before his death in 1998 at age 72. His wife Olga recounted a few years later, “I was and always will be proud of my husband. He is the man who saved the world.” October 27 should be proclaimed Arkhipov day!
But there is another not insignificant aspect of the affair that became known only 50 years later. I pointed out that the deployment of nuclear missiles in foreign territories by Washington was being carried out secretly: and so they had also done in 1961 in Japan, in Okinawa, which Khrushchev clearly suspected, although their range could hit parts of China and not the USSR. The Kennedy Tapes revealed that this was unknown to President Kennedy himself, elected in January 1961, and he was informed of it just as the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted. In any case, in his televised address on Oct. 22, 1962, a week after the crisis broke out, Kennedy had the impudence to say, “Our strategic missiles have never been transferred to the territory of another nation under a cloak of secrecy and deception.”
So it was not until 2015 that a testimony emerged from a serviceman named Bordne, serving in Okinawa, that on that very fateful night of October 27, his superior, William Bassett (deceased in 2011), received an order to launch the nuclear missiles, but he sensed something wrong in that order, stalled, asked for clarification, insisted twice, and finally received the counter order; stop everything!
So today we can tell this story. And it is very appropriate to remember it because things are no longer like that. With the objective of avoiding “human error” there has been a tendency to entrust nuclear weapons’ control to automation. The crucial problem is error, the high rate of false positives in predicting rare events. Unfortunately, the decision made by a machine will be irrevocable! Not only can machines make mistakes, but they can also be fooled by false signals. An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last January commented, “If artificial intelligence controlled nuclear weapons we might all be dead!”
Today there can no longer be a man who has the authority, and the responsibility, to verify and contradict a nuclear alert, as even Colonel Stanislav Petrov did on 26 September 1983.
The parallel between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the resurgence of the nuclear nightmare is certainly evocative, but inadequate. The U.S. with the 1962 agreement to withdraw Soviet missiles from Cuba granted in return something of fundamental importance to military balance: later on, in order to conceal the connection with the agreement reached with Moscow that October 28, 1962, the U.S. withdrew their missiles deployed in Turkey and Italy.
In recent years security in Europe has been compromised by NATO’s eastward extension: what concession could the US offer to restore it?
. See A. Tovish, “The Okinawa missiles of October”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 25 October 2015, https://thebulletin.org/2015/10/the-okinawa-missiles-of-october/.
. Zachary Kallenborn, “Giving an AI control of nuclear weapons: What could possibly go wrong?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1 February 2022, https://thebulletin.org/2022/02/giving-an-ai-control-of-nuclear-weapons-what-could-possibly-go-wrong/.