Imagine two different worlds
Updated: Mar 3
John Lennon once imagined a world where there was no war and nothing to kill or die for which isn’t always very easy to picture as we continue to see images of unnecessary conflicts in various hot spots around the world, leaving countless dead, injured or suffering in their wake.
But let us imagine there was a war. A very brief war. A war that starts with a green torpedo being loaded into the tube of a diesel submarine. A submarine that has spent a week at the bottom of the ocean trying to avoid detection from American warships. A submarine which has lost radio contact with Moscow and has orders to retaliate if provoked. The date is October 27th, 1962.
In cramped, sweaty conditions in which sailors have been rationed to a glass of water a day, the captain, Valentin Savitsky loses his cool. Trying to force the sub to surface, the Americans drop depth charges, unsettling the already stressed submariners.
Deep in the Caribbean and unable to monitor American radio stations, they had not heard from Moscow for a number of days and Captain Savitsky suspected that war has already broken out.
Armed with a retaliation weapon, the captain orders it to be combat readied. His crew obeys him. Few of the sailors of the Russian B59 submarine are aware of the sub's deadly cargo which is known only as a special weapon.
Like the bullet that shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a bridge in Sarajevo in 1914,
I suspect that this special bullet would have plunged us into another world war.
Not only would this green torpedo sink the USS Beale which had been dropping depth charges on their position but it was a nuclear torpedo that would have annihilated all 11 destroyers chasing the submarine, the American fleet in the area and could have possibly even have vaporised the island of Cuba.
This nuclear bullet could have triggered a devastating response destroying much of North America, Europe, and Euro-Asia and 90 miles away in America, jets already fuelled and armed would have deployed.
In the skies, the Strategic Air Command which already had B47s and B52s bombers in the air 24 hours a day and was always ready to enter Russian airspace and drop their thermal nuclear cargo, if so ordered, would probably have been given their final orders.
Pre-determined targets and cities would be only a matter of minutes away from destruction if a global war has kicked off and few players would be involved. The United Nations has no veto here and no protest will influence the intercontinental missiles on their flight path.
While not from Berlin with its 96-mile wall and Russian and American tanks poised against each other at Check Point Charlie, a young 8-year-old Angela Merkel would probably have died during destructive blasts or the radioactive fallout.
Half of Europe controlled from Moscow is an American threat and the continent would have been shattered between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, each trying to out-nuke each other.
Many people would try to survive the radiation but would be simply unable or unaware of what to do. Like the thirsty people who drank black rain in Hiroshima, people would die in the countryside, eating the land’s poisoned fruit.
Both superpowers know that neither can attack the other because they can be guaranteed of Mutually Assured Destruction appropriately known as M.A.D.
I imagine this M.A.D. strategy being like electrifying a chessboard where two informing grandmasters refuse to ever touch the board knowing the consequences of making the first move. Neither would move and rooks and rockets would stay stationary. Well, that's the theory anyway.
This M.A.D. concept kept the world dangerously safe for decades but like a chain, the weakest link breaks. Cut off from Russia, Captain Savitsky wrongly believed that the game had begun and nearly caused a nuclear chain reaction.
In the aftermath of the silo doors being opened and the bomb bays being emptied, would President Kennedy look out of the Oval Office he was unable to evacuate and watch the mushroom clouds rise? How many leaders worldwide were unaware that this was the day it would all end or believed it could happen? There were 3 billion people alive in the 1960s and 100’s of millions of them could have died.
Now imagine seven billion people alive in a world where one unknown hero, prevented that very special weapon from ever being loaded into the tubes of his submarine.
There were four Russian submarines that snuck secretly into Cuban waters and while normally the Captain’s orders would have been followed in full but without the mandatory consensus of the captain, the second-in-command and the political officer, they could not launch.
The captain’s orders were not followed on that fatal day when Admiral Vasili Arkhipov could not agree with the decision. The crew supported the captain but luckily Arkhipov was commander of the Russian fleet and was of equal rank with the captain and vetoed the decision to fire the B59’s special weapon.
Like the film Crimson Tide which was partly inspired by Vasili’s actions, Captain Valentin Savitsky was convinced that nuclear war had already started and was ready to fire. He was tired and stressed and lost his temper in a moment that could have nearly ended the world.
Vasili Arkhipov used his final veto to save the world and ordered the submariners to surface and surrender. After surrendering, the defeated submariners returned to Russia but not as heroes and one admiral even stated that it would have been better if they went down with their ship.
One man’s actions would determine the fate of the world. One man submerged in a tin can at the bottom of the ocean who kept his cool. A man who saved us from his own fate. A radioactive death.
Not only did he partly inspire the film Crimson Tide, he was also one of the sailors on-board the K19 submarine which developed a reactor leak at sea and exposed the crew to dangerous levels of radiation which featured in the Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford film, K19 The Widowmaker.
Let us imagine a world on fire and people hiding in caves, indoors and underground, now imagine John Lennon’s world where he sang, “Imagine all the people living for today, nothing to kill or die for, imagine all the people living life in peace.”
Few men are celebrated for surrendering and defeat but some 7 billion people should thank and remember the name Vasili Arkhipov. If Europe can win a peace prize for peaceful events over the last half a century, surely we can acknowledge a man who saved the world five decades ago.
You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I hope I’m not the only one.
There have been many days where mistakes have been made with nuclear power and many heroes who have saved the world and many times where the world never imagined how lucky we have been.