- US Navy
The threat of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction always hung heavy throughout the Cold War, but at no point did those worries become so close to turning true as during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
The crisis was based around the Soviet Union stationing offensive-capable nuclear missiles in Cuba. After the Kennedy administration learned that the missiles were placed on the island, the US and the Soviet Union entered into a 13-day crisis that at any moment could have spiraled into nuclear war.
As the situation progressed, the US put in place a “quarantine” around Cuba to block Soviet ships from being able to move materials to the island. The quarantine was essentially a blockade by a different name, as blockades are technically an act of war.
The enforcement of this quarantine led the two world’s two leading powers very close to a nuclear exchange. According to a review of former US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry’s memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” on The New York Review of Books, a Soviet submarine that was stopped by the quarantine was armed with nuclear torpedoes and had decided to use them.
“Moscow had authorized the submarine commanders to fire without further authorization,” The New York Review of Books writes, summarizing a passage from Perry. “When an American destroyer tried to force a submarine to surface, both its captain and the political officer decided to fire a nuclear torpedo at the destroyer.”
“A nuclear confrontation was avoided only because Vasili Arkhipov, the overall commander of the fleet, was also present on the submarine,” the review continued. “He countermanded the order to launch, thereby preventing what might have started a nuclear war.”
Had Arkhipov not countermanded the order to launch nuclear torpedoes, a series of brutal escalations would most likely have taken place. The US military had already been placed on DEFCON 2 the day before this incident took place, and both the Americans and the Soviets were one slip away from launching their nuclear arsenals and starting an unstoppable lurch toward nuclear destruction.
Instead, Arkhipov’s move helped ensure that the US and the Soviet Union ultimately resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis peacefully.