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Abstract

On the twelfth day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the senior officers of the Soviet submarine B-59 faced a terrifying choice. Nearby U.S. warships had begun dropping practice depth charges to force the submarine to surface, but the Russian sailors—who had been unable to contact Soviet command for two days—believed that the U.S. Navy was trying to kill them. For their part, the Americans did not know that the B-59 was equipped with nuclear-tipped torpedoes, nor that the sub had prior authorization to use their nukes without direct permission from the Kremlin. Making matters worse, the submarine’s crew was exhausted and dangerously overheated—temperatures in the submarine had reached 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Amid the stifling heat and the fear that World War III had already begun, the B-59’s commanders had to decide whether to use their nuclear torpedoes in self-defense. The sub’s second-in-command, Vasili Arkhipov, refused to give his consent because he believed that the U.S. was not attacking the ship, and therefore that a strike would not be justified as self-defense. Under Soviet military protocols, his refusal meant the launch could not go forward.6 The Cuban Missile Crisis ended the next day.

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