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Guest Thinkers

Happy Arkhipov Day, Everybody

Today is the 47th anniversary of the day a courageous Soviet submarine officer, Vasili Arkhipov, probably saved the world from nuclear armageddon.

On October 27, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. Navy destroyers were trying to force Arkhipov’s submarine to surface near Cuba. The captain was ready to retaliate by firing a nuclear-armed torpedo.

Three officers — captain, political officer and Arkhipov, who was second officer — had to agree to launch the weapon. The other two officers favored using the nuke, which could very well have started World War III. Arkhipov refused to go along, so the submarine surfaced instead.

Being one person against two is not easy. Even judges on U.S. appellate courts appear swayed by the dynamic, for instance. According to this paper by Cass Sunstein, on the three-judge panels that decide most U.S. Court of Appeals cases, judges appointed by Democratic presidents are more likely to vote like Republicans if the other two panelists were appointed by a Republican, and Republicans are more likely to vote like Democrats when the situation is reversed).

For resisting the urge to fire back at people who were dropping depth charges on him, for declining to be swayed by his military and ideological indocrination, Arkhipov deserves to be remembered on the anniversay of the day when his decision might well have saved civilization.


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