Don’t forget the bomb
Louis Bertolotti | Monday, November 9, 2015
Does the name Vasili Arkhipov ring a bell to you? The odds say that you have no idea who this man is, although he most likely saved your life on a fateful day 53 years ago last week.
Arkhipov was a Soviet naval officer aboard the B-59 nuclear-weaponized submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the start of the Crisis, this ship had sunk to deep waters in order to avoid its U.S. Navy pursuers. After a number of days with no contact from the outside world and no idea whether war had broken out or not, the submarine found itself being bombarded with explosives from a group of 11 U.S. Navy destroyers.
Mistaking these non-lethal warning shots asking for identification with actual live explosives, both the Soviet political officer on board and the captain of the B-59 voted to move forward with a launch of their nuclear weapons on the U.S. homeland. Soviet policy mandated that in order to launch these weapons, all that was needed was approval from the two of them and from the ship’s second-in-command — in this case, Vasili Arkhipov.
Arkhipov was not convinced that war had broken out and refused to authorize the launch, much to the chagrin of his fellow officers. Despite their attempts to persuade him of the necessity of defending the interests of his motherland, Arkhipov would not give in, and the submarine surfaced, saving the planet from nuclear annihilation.
This was not the only nuclear close call during the Cold War. There was the 1979 NORAD computer glitch that informed and convinced the U.S. military that a barrage of Soviet ICBMs were in route towards North America. There was the 1983 Soviet urgent alert that Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov chose not to report to the Soviet high command, instead (correctly) hoping it was a false alarm. The list goes on and on.
The point is that on a number of occasions, the fate of civilization, even the fate of mankind itself, was left to the decision of one person.
There are over 15,000 nuclear weapons in existence in the world today. They are distributed amongst nine countries: the United States, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, China, North Korea and Russia. Almost all of these weapons are incredibly more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, and many are ready to be launched within minutes of a warning.
The most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated was the Tsar Bomba, a test bomb dropped by the Soviets in 1961 over Northern Russia. The King of Bombs, as it translates, had a power output equivalent to 1.4% of the Sun, caused third-degree burns 62 miles away, shattered windows 560 miles away, had a shockwave that circled the Earth three times, and a mushroom cloud that was seven times taller than Mount Everest.
Dropping such a bomb on a heavily populated city today would cause millions of deaths in an instant, and the retaliation would likely lead to the extinction of mankind. Recent studies have shown that as few as 100 nuclear detonations would be enough to block much of the Earth’s sunlight, destroy our ozone layer and cause a sudden drop in worldwide temperature — all of which would be likely to destroy many land and sea-based ecosystems, probably causing worldwide famine.
All of the above facts are too often overlooked in today’s society. Nuclear weapons make humans an endangered species. We live, literally, just one decision away from complete extinction.
Sadly, I think this has become part of the human condition. Nuclear weapons serve as an important deterrent in our national security arsenal, and complete proliferation, in a world in which states cannot truly trust each other, is seemingly impossible. Would we really give up our biggest safeguard against attack in the hopes that North Korea abides by the same rules?
Nuclear weapons are here to stay, at least for the time being. And yet, it seems as if the American people do not take this seriously enough. It is true that our world has been spared a nuclear attack throughout the lives of nearly everyone alive today, but that does not guarantee the same outcome forever.
As shown above, we have been just one wrong decision away from nuclear war on a number of occasions. Luck, and maybe a bit of intervention from above, saved us. Yet, because the threat seems so far removed from us now, we have become too complacent.
Now that we are less than one year away from the election to decide our next Commander in Chief, we must rid ourselves of that complacency. We must realize the seriousness that is the position of the leader of the Armed Forces of the United States.
As you consider the nominees for President in the 362 days ahead, I hope that you will remember the gravity of the position for which they are running. Our next President, and every one thereafter, controls the fate of our world. Your vote is not a decision to take lightly.
And so I ask you, whose finger would you like resting upon the launch button? Your answer literally means the world.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.