Reminder: We Came Within An Inch Of Nuclear Annihilation In The Last Cold War
With neoliberals pushing for a new Cold War, we should take a minute to remember what came so very close to happening in the last one.
As we discussed yesterday, neocon Republicans have been forming a coalition with establishment Democrats in their mutual desire to begin a new Cold War with Russia. A recent neocon-authored Politico article strongly advocating another Cold War is getting praised and shared around by liberal pundits from all the establishment encampments you’d expect, from NPR to Bloomberg to the Washington Post. Since these individuals are the paid mouthpieces of the political establishment and not actual journalists as society understands that term, we can safely surmise that this is where the neoliberal oligarchs would like to see us headed, possibly due to Russia’s insolent refusal to back away from the strategically valuable Syria and as its collaboration with China to weaken the hegemony of the U.S. dollar, or possibly just because a new Cold War would be immensely profitable for the military industrial complex.
You can smell it in the air. Every day now I’m having interactions with Democratic party loyalists who insist that a new Cold War is either an unfortunate inevitability or a desirable means to a desirable end, so I think it would be a good idea to clear up here and now just what such a conflict would entail. A lot of the folks I’ve been speaking with are blissfully unaware that we came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear holocaust at the height of the last Cold War, and nothing but dumb luck and the courage of a single Soviet submariner stood between our species and the abyss of total extinction.
Pictured above is a man named Vasili Arkhipov. You may never have heard of him, but he’s the reason you’re reading this sentence right now. He’s the reason there are birds in the sky and trees in the soil, and he’s the reason that all of your loved ones exist. If you were born after the 27th of October, 1962, he is the reason your lungs ever drew breath and your eyes ever gazed upon your mother’s face. More about him in a moment.
Before we go on, I should mention that a 2014 report published in the journal Earth’s Future found that it would only take the detonation of 100 nuclear warheads to throw 5 teragrams of black soot into the earth’s stratosphere for decades, blocking out the sun and making the photosynthesis of plants impossible, starving every terrestrial organism to death. The United States and Russia currently have about 7,000 nuclear warheads apiece that we know of. During the Cold War, each had tens of thousands.
The hottest point of the Cold War was unquestionably the Cuban Missile Crisis. Once an American ally, the newly communist nation of Cuba was building a robust relationship with the communist Soviet Union in 1962 following the CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion the previous year. The US had placed nuclear tipped Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey capable of wiping out Moscow in sixteen minutes, and in response Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev met secretly with Fidel Castro to arrange the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba capable of obliterating New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC off the map in half an hour. These missiles were detected and photographed by a US Air Force spy plane, and Cold War tensions hit a fever pitch. The nuclear threat was elevated to DEFCON 2 for the first time ever, the US Air Force was preparing to turn the USSR into a giant mushroom cloud, each nation was poised to wipe out the other at the drop of a hat, and if anything had gone wrong, they would have.
This was all well-known and documented at the time. What we didn’t know until new information came to light in 2002 was how very, very, very close things had come to going very, very, very wrong.
On October 27th, when the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its most tense and most dangerous, a diesel-powered Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine was discovered ninety miles off the coast of Florida, where it along with three other submarines had been ordered weeks before to wait for orders from Moscow. All four ships carried nuclear weapons as powerful as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Things were incredibly tense aboard the ship. The warm tropical waters had allowed the inside of the submarine to exceed temperatures of 120 degrees for hours at a time, and crew members had been rationed to one cup of drinking water per day. Hearing scarcely anything from Moscow since departing from their secret arctic naval base weeks earlier, they were getting most of their information by listening to Miami radio, which of course at that time was constantly broadcasting about an imminent World War 3 as the missile crisis reached a crescendo. When the submarine Vasili Arkhipov occupied was detected, it only had six hours worth of battery for it to dive and hide underwater with. It was a psychologically intolerable environment for the fate of the world to rest on.
But it did. US Navy forces quickly surrounded the sub in the still waters which had made it easy to locate with sonar, and, not knowing the ship carried a nuclear torpedo, began pummeling it with sound bursts and small explosives to torment its crew members into surfacing. In the stress, confusion and chaos, not understanding what the foreign fleet was doing, not having heard from Moscow and unable to use radio so far beneath the sea, the ship’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, decided that war must have broken out, and ordered political officer Ivan Maslennikov to help him arm the “special weapon,” as they called it at the time.
The weapon would have obliterated the entire American fleet, and would have guaranteed a full-scale nuclear retaliation from America upon the Soviet Union and surrounding allies, which would have been met with an all-out nuclear attack from the Soviets, as per the terms of Mutually Assured Destruction. An instant cataclysmic game of dominoes resulting in the extinction of all life on the planet. It was all set to go, and all it needed was one nuke from either side. President Kennedy's advisors were already pressuring him to pull the trigger on military aggression, and Fidel Castro had written Khrushchev urging him to launch a nuclear attack on the United States at the first sign of aggression against Cuba. The world was literally ready to explode.
In most Soviet nuclear subs, including the other three in their flotilla, only two people were required to activate a nuclear attack, the captain and the political officer, who each held two halves of a key to launch the weapon. On this particular ship, it happened to require a third: second-in-command Vasili Arkhipov. Maslennikov didn’t hesitate to obey the will of his captain, but Arkhipov, despite the intense heat and dehydration, weeks on end trapped in a small space deep under the water, the hours of torment meted out by the US forces belting them with sonar and light explosives trying to get them to surface, and the psychological torture of having no idea what was happening other than Miami radio yapping about World War 3, and without any contact with Moscow, he somehow managed to keep a cool head in the midst of it all. He suspected that the US were not attacking them, but rather trying to get them to surface. He refused to grant permission to launch the nuclear torpedo at the US Navy, eventually calming his captain down and persuading him to surface, where they were shortly released as the missile crisis was deescalated in successful negotiations between President Kennedy and Khrushchev.
There are very few people like our hero Arkhipov. Not just his courage and his level-headedness in a crisis, but there was another factor that was pure serendipity. The previous year, Arkhipov had been aboard a nuclear-powered Hotel-class submarine where the reactor had developed a severe leak in its cooling system. In order to avert a nuclear meltdown, eight members of the engineering crew sacrificed their lives jury-rigging a new cooling system to save the reactor, dying of radiation poisoning shortly thereafter. Had he not witnessed first hand the horrific effects of radiation upon the human body, it’s possible that Arkhipov could have made a different decision at that crucial moment in October.
And there were other factors too. Had it happened with a submarine which required two people to launch a nuclear weapon instead of three, none of us would be here today. Had Arkhipov not been there, and another more gung-ho, less radiation-weary submariner been there in his place, things could have gone much differently.
So many things could have gone so wrong, and it’s only by sheer dumb luck that someone was there with enough wits about them to catch the glass before it hit the floor.
And that’s what I’m trying to communicate here, dear reader. There are so very many things that can go wrong when tensions are escalated between two nuclear superpowers. You can’t account for everything. There’s no way to predict all the possible things that could go wrong in the chaos and confusion of a new Cold War. There are too many tiny moving parts. Too many things that can go far too wrong placed in the hands of fallible humans under impossibly stressful conditions.
The world is not made of Vasili Arkhipovs.
This is what the neolibs/neocons (same thing, different bumper stickers) are trying to visit upon our species when they wax patriotic about their hunger for a new Cold War. This is your reward for giving these people control over your country.
And the new president elect isn’t much better, saying he wants to get along with Russia but also tweeting about wanting to put even more resources into a nuclear weapons program Obama already committed a trillion dollars to over the next three decades and saying asinine things like (if you believe the folks at Morning Joe) “Let it be an arms race.” This isn’t a game. The fact that nuclear weapons are a part of our lives should be met with tears and spoken of as a gravely tragic thing, not like some frat boy boasting that he can drink more PBR than you.
These people spend all their lives jockeying for power, and when they finally get it all they want to do is play Russian roulette with human extinction. I don’t know what part of the human brain it is that allows this to happen, but I hope evolution weeds it out sooner rather than later.
These are people in their seventies too, that’s the other thing that kills me. Trump turned 70 last June and Hillary “no fly zone” Clinton will turn 70 the day before the 55th anniversary of Vasili Arkhipov’s heroic deed. They don’t care about the world. They used it up and they’re done with it. All the neocons and establishment Dems salivating over a new Cold War are all old and miserable; you know if they look out the window and see a mushroom cloud on the horizon one morning they’ll just be happy they don’t have to go to work and pretend to be real people anymore.
This is insane, and these people aren’t our friends. They don’t deserve to run things anymore, and we’d be stupid to allow them to. Let’s make something better together. Let’s all be Vasili Arkhipov today.
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