The Day Nuclear War Almost Broke OutHistorians in the News
tags: Cold War, nuclear weapons, Cuban Missile Crisis
On October 27, 1962, a day that’s been described as the “most dangerous” in human history, a Soviet submarine designated B-59 was churning through the Sargasso Sea when suddenly it was rocked by a series of explosions. “It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer,” Vadim Orlov, a communications specialist on board the sub, later recalled. “The situation was quite unusual, if not to say shocking, for the crew.”
Four weeks earlier, B-59 had been dispatched from the U.S.S.R. with three other so-called F-class subs as part of Operation Anadyr, Nikita Khrushchev’s top-secret effort to install ballistic missiles in Cuba. (The Anadyr is a river that flows into the Bering Sea; the code name was intended to make even soldiers participating in the operation believe they were headed somewhere cold.) Pretty much from the outset of the voyage, things had not gone well.
“For the sailors, this Cuban missile crisis started even before its beginning,” Ryurik Ketov, the captain of another Cuba-bound sub, once observed. The Atlantic that October was turbulent, and the pitching sea made it tough for the boats to maintain their desired speed.
“You have to hold on to something even in your sleep, or else you’ll fall off,” a crew member complained. Communications, too, were difficult. Once past Iceland, the subs had trouble contacting Moscow; for a while, according to Ketov, the only voices audible over the radio “were those of Murmansk fishermen.”
By the time President John F. Kennedy learned of Operation Anadyr, on October 16th, the subs were halfway across the Atlantic. By the time he announced the “quarantine” of Cuba, on October 22nd, they were nearing the island. They were ordered by the Soviet naval command to change course and take up positions in the Sargasso Sea. There a new set of problems arose. The subs, built for navigating farther north, had trouble operating in warm water. Temperatures inside rose to uncomfortable levels and kept on rising, to more than a hundred and ten degrees, and carbon-dioxide levels climbed, too. “It’s getting hard to breathe in here,” a crew member recorded in his diary.
By October 27th, conditions on B-59 were so bad that men were passing out; in the words of one, “They were falling like dominoes.” American destroyers were practically on top of the sub; this prevented it from surfacing to recharge its batteries and use its antenna. The boat’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, knew from previous days’ communications that a crisis was unfolding above the waves, but, unable to receive radio signals, he had no way of learning about recent developments.
To avoid escalation, American warships were supposed to follow a careful protocol when they came across subs. They were to drop harmless depth charges and instruct the subs to surface. But that day someone decided to drop hand grenades into the water. Savitsky ordered the crew to get ready to fire back.
“Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here,” he shrieked. “We’re going to blast them now!”
What the grenade tossers did not know—what almost no one knew until four decades later—was that one of B-59’s torpedoes was carrying what the Soviets called “special ammunition.” The “special” part was a fifteen-kiloton nuclear warhead. Had Savitsky’s orders been carried out, chances are good that the Americans would have responded in kind, and a full-scale nuclear war would have broken out. There should, it seems, be a useful lesson to be learned from that frantic afternoon. But what, in God’s name, is it?
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