The Man Who Stopped WW3- Article in the New York Times
Companion programs on Tuesday night on PBS are determined to convince 21st-century viewers that the Cuban missile crisis, now a 50-year-old memory for some and a history class footnote for others, was frighteningly close to being the end of the world.
The first, “Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War,” gets so carried away with mushroom clouds and other manipulative imagery that it actually undercuts the solid archival material and illuminating interviews it has assembled. The second, an episode of the series “Secrets of the Dead” called “The Man Who Saved the World,” is more effective, taking the time to give a detailed picture of conditions inside a Soviet submarine that almost fired a nuclear-tipped torpedo during a confrontation with Navy ships.
Together, the programs are, if nothing else, a reminder that the crisis came down to decisions by a few fallible human beings acting on imperfect information. And what’s really scary is to compare those individuals with some of those who now might have or be able to get nuclear weapons. The unstable regimes and outright terrorists in the nuclear market today make the cold warriors of 1962 look like calm, reasoned statesmen.
The three men referred to in the title of the “Cuban Missile Crisis” program are, of course, President John F. Kennedy, Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev of the Soviet Union and Premier Fidel Castro of Cuba. Among those interviewed for the program was Sergei Khrushchev, the premier’s son, who makes his father sound like the coolest head in the confrontation. Some of Kennedy’s advisers, in contrast, seem positively eager to reduce the world to cinders.
The program features a lot of people who talk about the moment’s tension, but it doesn’t really make you feel that tension. A bizarre collage near the end, set to the Christmas carol “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” may even prompt a few giggles among viewers who don’t realize that the song was written during, and inspired by, the crisis. In truth, it may get a few chuckles even from those who do know that.
“The Man Who Saved the World” is more successful, taking some time to tell the unsettling story of what happened on a Soviet submarine, one of four sent toward Cuba from the Arctic Circle as the crisis was developing. Each carried a “special weapon,” as their crews were told; only a few knew that that referred to a nuclear-tipped torpedo.
Scarily, the commanders of the submarines had launching authority, needing only the confirmation of the submarine’s political officer. By chance, one submarine, known as B-59, also carried a third high-ranking officer, Vasili Arkhipov, the captain of the fleet; on that vessel a launching would require three-way approval.
“If these three men agree, they can unleash Armageddon,” the program’s somewhat overheated narration says.
“Overheated” describes the conditions inside B-59, as well, because of a malfunctioning cooling system. Re-enactments help underscore how uncomfortable it must have been for the crew, but the submarine was staying submerged as much as possible to keep it from being spotted by American ships and planes.
Lack of information was also an issue. The submarines, not hearing much from the Soviet high command, were trying to figure out what was going on by listening to American radio, and those reports were somewhat inflamed.
“They weren’t getting communications from Moscow,” Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archive says in the program. “They were listening to Miami radio stations. On Miami radio the stories are about impending U.S. invasion of Cuba. On Miami radio it’s descriptions of the flotilla offshore. It’s descriptions of total mobilization.”
Though other accounts paint the incident less dramatically, in this telling the sense of panic on the submarine grows to the point that when the Navy spots B-59 and drops depth charges to try to get it to surface, the submarine’s commander, Valentin Savitsky, orders that the nuclear torpedo be fired. The political officer agrees; only the refusal by Arkhipov, who died in 1998, prevents it.
The details of what went on aboard B-59 came to light only recently, and while it may be an overstatement to say that Arkhipov’s caution “saved the world,” the world might well be a different place if that torpedo had been fired. The relevance to our time isn’t direct; certainly the prospect that two nuclear giants will square off in a civilization-ending slugfest feels remote at the moment.
But it’s easier than ever to envision that a handful of people with jittery nerves and clouded judgment might somehow acquire a nuclear weapon and do catastrophic damage. As on-the-brink as the Cuban missile crisis was, there may have been more good sense then than there is in some quarters now.