The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited: Nuclear Deterrence? Good Luck!

by Martin J. Sherwin, University Professor of History

The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited: Nuclear Deterrence? Good Luck!

At 9 a.m. on an October morning almost 50 years ago, national security advisor McGeorge Bundy entered President John F. Kennedy’s White House bedroom to deliver some bad news. Photographs taken two days earlier by a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft had revealed unmistakable evidence that the Soviet Union had secretly placed medium- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. During the following 13 days, October 16–28, 1962, Cold War diplomacy heated to the combustion point as the president and Premier Khrushchev initiated actions that edged the world toward nuclear Armageddon. 

At the time, I was a junior officer in the U.S. Navy attached to Patrol Squadron 31, an antisubmarine warfare training squadron based at North Island Naval Air Station near San Diego, California. Despite my modest rank, my job—the squadron’s air intelligence officer—made me custodian of our top secret documents, including our deployment orders in the event of war. 

Sometime following mid-October, I received an unexpected new set of orders, after I learned that the round-the-world flight I was scheduled to conavigate for an admiral had been scrapped. Within days, all leave was canceled.According to rumors,  the cause was rising tensions in Berlin. 

On Monday, October 22, 1962, just hours before Kennedy’s televised speech announcing a naval “quarantine” of Cuba and the demand that Khrushchev withdraw the offending missiles forthwith, I was ordered to remove the war plans from my safe and deliver them to our squadron’s senior staff. My recollection is that in the event of war, we were to deploy to Baja, California. Junior officers having more bravado than sense, we joked that the beaches of Baja would be a delightful place to die. 

I did not know until I learned about the events I describe below how close to death we all were. 

There are hundreds of studies of those terrifying 13 October days during which the pressure of domestic and international politics on both sides of the iron curtain and the personal interests of the principal decision makers nearly ignited a global conflagration. In the end, nuclear war was averted by the rising panic that engulfed both leaders but that Khrushchev acted on first. In a surprise announcement over radio Moscow, on Sunday morning, October 28, the Soviet premier accepted Kennedy’s earlier pledge not to invade Cuba (and his secret commitment to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey) as a quid pro quo for the removal of the Soviet missiles. But it had been a close call. 

“We had to act very quickly,” Khrushchev told a visiting Eastern Bloc diplomat soon after. “That is also why we even used radio to contact the president….This time we really were on the verge of war.” 

In fact, World War III was even closer than either Khrushchev or Kennedy ever realized, and it was not going to be started by either of them or Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro. The instigator was an obscure 30-something Soviet submarine captain who gave the order on Saturday, October 27, at 5 p.m. eastern daylight savings time (EDST) to load and prepare to fire a nuclear armed torpedo at a fleet of U.S. Navy vessels.

This story, first revealed in English in the Journal of Strategic Studies in April 2005, of how Captain V. G. Savitskii was goaded into giving that order and how his gamble with Armageddon was prevented, alters the accepted explanation of how the Cuban Missile Crisis was peacefully resolved. Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s shared aversion to armed conflict was essential, but the indispensable ingredient was luck, very good luck, the all too often ignored hidden historical variable. 

On October 27, 1962, almost six days (five days and 22 hours to be exact) have passed since Kennedy announced his decision to “quarantine” Cuba. This was only the initial step, he said, to force the Soviet Union to remove the nuclear missiles it had secretly shipped to the island over the past several months. “These actions may only be the beginning….We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”

It has been three days and several hours since the U.S. Navy deployed an armada of nearly 200 ships stretching on an arc 500 miles north of Havana. It has become increasingly apparent to Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Castro that the military activities of each passing day has exponentially increased the danger of a hostile incident escalating out of control. Along with potential clashes on the quarantine line, tension has been increased by the well-publicized buildup of U.S. forces in the United States and Europe. The three contending leaders are acutely aware and worried (at least Khrushchev and Kennedy are) that at any moment events could slip from their control.

Castro is enraged beyond worry. He is well informed of the U.S. military’s preparations, and he is certain that an attack is “almost imminent within the next 24 to 72 hours.” In response to Kennedy’s address, he has ordered general mobilization, and commanded his anti-aircraft batteries to shoot down U.S. aircraft that overfly the island; several low flying USAF reconnaissance jets have had close calls. 

Earlier on that Saturday, a Soviet commander, who Castro badgered into action, fired a surface-to-air missile (SAM/SA-2) at a USAF U2. It found its target, and its pilot, Maj. Rudolph Anderson, was killed. The missile had been fired without Moscow’s authorization, but neither Kennedy nor any of his advisors know that. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are united in urging the president to bomb the offending SAM site; an act he fears could escalate into a global war.

Certain now that he can do little to prevent an assault, Castro has become grimly fatalistic. Determined to confront the inevitable head on regardless of the consequences, he has dictated a letter to Khrushchev urging him to launch Soviet intercontinental missiles against the United States should an assault occur. If “the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it…the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it…[so] that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.” 

Living so intensely at the center of the crisis, Castro has abandoned any hope of a peaceful resolution. He has embraced Armageddon as an act of retributive justice. 

Khrushchev, who will remain in his Kremlin office throughout the night, is desperate to avoid Armageddon, or anything approaching it. He has recklessly gambled that nuclear missiles could be installed undetected in Cuba. But he has lost that bet and is now frantically seeking to escape the consequences of the dangerous standoff he created. He wants the crisis resolved peacefully, but he has no intention of giving up the missiles without getting something in return. Yet, Castro’s call for a first strike is a warning, a realization that he might not be able to control Cuban actions. 

Khrushchev is close to exhaustion, nearly overcome by the contradictory emotions that have roiled him for days. He is 9,000 miles from Havana, but only 32 minutes from an intercontinental minuteman missile launched from Wyoming. He is terrified of skidding sideways into a nuclear war. Yet he remains furious about the blockade of Cuba, which he considers an illegal, outrageous act of war. Kennedy calls it a “quarantine,”  but Khrushchev is not appeased by the euphemism. It is “outright banditry…. The folly of degenerate imperialism…[and an] act of aggression that pushes mankind toward the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war,” he angrily writes to Kennedy on October 24. Khrushchev  appears determined then to dare the Americans to sink a Soviet vessel. 

But now, three days later, both the mounting tension and the circumstances have changed his tone. As U.S. anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces are closing in on Soviet submarines that have reached the blockade line, he writes a personal, beseeching letter: “Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot. And what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.” 

Kennedy, too, is dealing with powerful conflicting emotions. Pacing the floor of the Oval Office, he is talking to his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, wondering if he is being too cautious, too aggressive, too flexible, too rigid, or simply too worried. “Pierre,” he said to his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, “Do you realize that if I make a mistake in this crisis 200 million people are going to get killed?” He is infuriated with his military chiefs for their cavalier attitude toward war and is losing patience with his advisors, who are still offering contradictory recommendations. As does Khrushchev, Kennedy wants a peaceful resolution, but he too has a bottom line: the Soviet missiles must be removed from Cuba.

Kennedy and Khrushchev are enemies, ideological and military adversaries, who have blundered into a dangerous confrontation that neither wanted nor anticipated. Each is aware that an accident or even a misinterpretation can instantly set off a nuclear exchange. Yet the circumstances of their political and international obligations, as well as their personal interests, compel them to continue to press their goals against each other despite their recognition that nothing they can achieve is worth the consequences of a nuclear war. What they believed they shared during the crisis—and what histories of the Cuban Missile Crisis have generally agreed they shared—is the conviction that the fate of the world is in their hands. 

They are mistaken. 

On this Saturday evening,  the fate of the world is not in the hands of any head of state. It has slipped from their grasp, inadvertently and furtively, into the hands of two young Soviet navy officers—Captain 2nd Rank V. G. Savitskii, and Brigade Chief of Staff Captain V. A. Arkhipov—who are aboard a floundering Project 641 Soviet submarine. Savitskii’s boat, B-59, is one of a quartet of Foxtrot class (their NATO designation) submarines sent “to strengthen the defense of the island of Cuba.” Their arrival two days earlier at the quarantine line launched the U.S. Navy’s ASW forces into action and turned the area into a veritable war zone. 

The Foxtrots have a conventional propulsion system. When submerged, all power generation must be transferred from their three diesel engines to batteries that require periodic recharging. Yet, for days, it has been impossible for B-59 to rise to recharging depth. U.S. ASW ships and aircraft discovered its location and are harassing it with relatively low explosive practice depth charges and the unauthorized use of hand grenades. The intention is to signal the submarine to surface. “It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer,” Senior Lieutenant Vadim Orlov, the communications officer on B-59, recalled. “The situation was quite… shocking for the crew.” But B-59’s crew is dealing with more than terrifying external explosions. Internally conditions are horrific, almost unimaginable. The warm Caribbean waters have turned its interior into a sauna. The coolest section of the boat is a stifling 113 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature in the engine room is an unbearable 140 degrees. Designed to operate in the North Atlantic, Foxtrot submarines have no air conditioning, and the engine heat and body odor have turned the air rancid. The carbon dioxide level is dangerous, and the desalinization equipment has malfunctioned leaving fresh water in short supply. Most of the crew are covered with rashes and ulcers. The dreadful conditions have left many looking “like they had just been freed from Auschwitz or Buchenwald.” 

As the cacophony of the depth charges and hand grenades continue, Captain Savitskii begins to suspect that he is not merely being harassed but is actually under attack. “Of course, once one had . . . experienc[ed] firsthand what it was like on the receiving end of the depth charges, it was possible to somehow go about one’s business with a good understanding of the situation,” R. A. Ketov, one of the other submarine captains, later wrote about B-59’s experience. “However, when this . . . [i]s imposed for the first time on someone with no practical knowledge of it, it is a different matter altogether.” 

It was indeed “a different matter altogether” for Savitskii. He and the other submarine captains had recently received orders “to open a continuous communication channel with Moscow” that “could only be understood at the time as presaging a fundamental change in mission [e]ven the beginning of combat operations against the U.S. Navy.”

Was war beginning? Had it begun? It was difficult to confirm anything. “Moscow was totally jammed. There was nothing…emptiness. It was like Moscow doesn’t exist,” another of the captains recalled. “[All] we knew [was that] things were coming to a head, that trouble was brewing.” 

What no one in the U.S. government knows—not the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, Navy Intelligence, or the skippers of the U.S. Navy ASW forces chasing the Soviet submarines—is that one of the 22 torpedoes aboard B-59 (and each of the other three submarines) is armed with a 15-kiloton nuclear warhead. The range of the torpedo is 19 kilometers (about 12 miles) and carries an explosive force equivalent to that of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. If fired, it could easily sink several ships, an act guaranteed to trigger a nuclear response.

At this point the nightmarish conditions within B-59 and the terrifying explosions around it, are driving Savitskii to the breaking point. “Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here,” he literally screams. In a rising fury he orders his special weapons officer to arm and load the nuclear torpedo. “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.”

I want to pause here to dwell on the role that chance plays in history, as in each of our lives. Little in our existence is foreordained, and history is not a story composed of inevitable events. The destinies of nations, just as the lives of individuals, are moved inexorably forward through crossroad after crossroad by decisions and chance, with the influence of each in constant flux. In 1969, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, made this point explicit when he compared Robert Kennedy’s memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Thirteen Days) with his own experience of that affair. The subtitle of his review was “Homage to Plain Dumb Luck.” 

Luck, extraordinary good luck or plain dumb luck, took command of events aboard B-59 in the minutes that followed Savitskii’s order. When I first read about these events, a childhood image sprung to mind: As the torpedo was about to be fired, Superman miraculously appears and saves the day. 

My fantasy was not entirely fantastic. At the last moment, the torpedo was prevented from being fired by the unlikely intervention of a very level-headed naval officer who, merely by chance, had been assigned to travel to Cuba on B-59. 

Several versions describing how Brigade Chief of Staff Vasilii Arkhipov prevented World War III have come to light. All of them, while different in some respects, make the same basic point: were it not for his intervention, a torpedo with a 15-kiloton nuclear warhead would have been fired at a fleet of  U.S. Navy ships.

According to Ketov, who wrote the most complete account, Savitskii “had spent all day trying to escape the ASW forces but, having run down the battery, was forced to surface to recharge…. While surfacing, his boat “came under machine-gun fire from [U.S. ASW S-2] Tracker aircraft. The fire rounds landed either to the sides of the submarine’s hull or near the bow. All these provocative actions carried out by surface ships in immediate proximity, and ASW aircraft flying some 10 to 15 meters [less than 30 to 50 feet] above the boat had a detrimental impact on the commander, prompting him to take extreme measures…..the use of special weapons.” 

Although firing live ammunition at a submarine was strictly prohibited, having been a member of an ASW squadron flight crew, I have no trouble believing Ketov’s account. It is possible that the crew of the Tracker had not gotten the word banning the initiation of hostile fire. Or, perhaps, the combustive mix of adrenalin, testosterone, and frustration from having chased that submarine around the Caribbean for two days, led the Tracker crew to demonstrate clearly to that sub crew just who had won. Whatever the reason for firing live ammunition in the vicinity of the submarine and provocatively “buzzing” it, those young U.S. Navy aviators came close to precipitating a nuclear war. 

“Mere chance,” Ketov narrates, “prevented Savitskii from resorting to the use of ‘special weapons’ at this time. A delay in diving time and the prudence of the brigade’s Chief of Staff Vasilii Arkhipov—who happened to be on board—prevented the combat operations which the B-59 could have initiated.” 

The plight of B-59, the contrasting reactions of Savitskii and Arkhipov, the unauthorized use of grenades, machine gun fire by U.S. Navy aircraft, the Soviet and the American communications failures are together an astonishing tale with an obvious moral: crisis managers cannot manage everything. Even when they do their rational best, they are not likely to succeed if they run out of luck. The disconcerting conclusion about the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that on October 27, 1962, a global nuclear war was averted because a random selection process had deployed Captain Vasili Arkhipov aboard a particular Soviet submarine. 

As long as nuclear weapons arsenals exist, human survival appears to be resting on a foundation no more solid than luck. 

Nuclear deterrence? Good luck!


Martin J. Sherwin, University Professor of History, is writing a book, Gambling with Armageddon, about the nuclear arms race and the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

The author wishes to acknowledge his intellectual debt to Dr. Svetlana V. Savranskaya, senior researcher at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, for bringing to his attention numerous articles about the Soviet submarines during the Cuban Missile Crisis that  she had translated from Russian to English. See S.V. Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, April 2005.