October 27, 1962 is one of the days that altered the course of human history as we know it. It was during the height of the Cold War between many of the nations of the world, with the United States and Soviet Union being at the focal point. On that particular day, Soviet submarines were spotted near Cuba by United States forces and the US deployed depth charges to get the Soviets to surface.
The depth charges were non-lethal, but the Soviet forces didn’t know that as those in the B-59 submarine aboard had not been communicating. What the United States didn’t know is that this particular submarine was carrying a nuclear torpedo that could have started World War III, and the officers aboard didn’t have to contact the Soviet government for authority to launch.
The catch was, however, that all three of the commanding officers aboard the submarine had to authorize the launch. One officer, Valentin Savitsky, was reported as saying “Maybe the war has already started up there. We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them – we will not become the shame of the fleet.” Vasili Arkhipov was the third officer onboard, and he didn’t agree with the other officers about launching the torpedo.
Arkhipov argued that they weren’t being attacked, and that they were simply being warned to surface the submarine, and it was the only way since the submarine had not had any contact with any outside source for a week. The depth charges were deployed in a way that didn’t hit the ship, first dropping to the left and right. Arkhipov understood what this meant, and his ability to communicate possibly saved the world.
It wasn’t until 2002 that people found out what Arkhipov did, as United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara detailed the account at a press conference. “We came very close (to nuclear war). Closer than we knew at the time,” he said. “That was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.” However, Arkhipov passed away in 1998, so he would never really get the recognition he deserved for his quick thinking.
Many years following his death, Arkhipov has received the Future of Life Award that was created by the Future of Life Institute, a non-profit organization which includes the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. “The Future of Life Award is a prize awarded for a heroic act that has greatly benefited humankind, done despite personal risk and without being rewarded at the time,” Max Tegmark of the organization said.
The award includes a $50,000 prize to Arkhipov’s family, including his daughter Elena Andriukova and grandson Sergei. “He always thought that he did what he had to do and never considered his actions as heroism,” Andriukova said. “He acted like a man who knew what kind of disasters can come from radiation. He did his part for the future so that everyone can live on our planet.”
Beatrice Fihn of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons said that “As the risk of nuclear war is on the rise right now, all states must urgently join the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons to prevent such catastrophe,” noting that this was the right time in human history to posthumously award Arkhipov. The Future of Life Institute itself was founded in 2014 to help mitigate existential risk. On top of providing awards such as the one given to Arkhipov, the institute has also donated money to advancing technology and other beneficial projects with more than $20 million given out to researchers.