Lessons From the Cold War: Now Is the Time for De-Escalation

Most Americans think of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a time where we came uncomfortably close to nuclear exchanges with the Soviet Union. The truth is, though, things came much closer than they realize. Nuclear missiles staged in Cuba should be considered tame compared to what happened under the waves of the Atlantic off the coast of Florida and Cuba.

In October 1962, the Soviet Submarine B-59 was operating in the region. It was part of a Soviet flotilla dispatched to support Cuba. This mission was a critical component of the USSR’s strategic operations in the region, meant to challenge the U.S. naval blockade and deter any potential invasion of Cuba. And it should be noted: the Soviet Union’s decision to place missiles in Cuba was largely a response to the United States’ deployment of Jupiter ballistic missiles in Turkey and Italy. These American missiles were capable of striking the Soviet Union, and placing missiles in Cuba was seen by the Soviets as a way to restore the strategic balance. The move was intended to deter the U.S. from a first-strike capability and to protect the Soviet ally, Cuba, from potential American aggression.

You might think that the Soviets’ reasoning was unwarranted and an example of “unprovoked aggression”, but this was absolutely the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s intention. It was the highest brass after all which proposed Operation Northwoods. Proposed in March 1962, Operation Northwoods was a plan developed by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which suggested various covert operations and false-flag actions intended to justify a military intervention in Cuba. The plan included ideas such as staged terrorist attacks, hijackings, and other incidents to be blamed on the Cuban government. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, and people usually don’t believe me at first, but our leaders’ plan was literally to kill a bunch of our own civilians, then blame it on Cuba (and the USSR) in order to rally around the flag and justify an unnecessary war which would have surely led to the use of nukes. Thankfully for all of mankind, President John F. Kennedy rejected the proposal, and it was never implemented.

Meanwhile, under the waves, a man named Vasily Arkhipov was aboard B-59 serving as Chief of Staff, the equivalent of Executive Officer. B-59 carried a T-5 nuclear torpedo with the power to cause massive destruction. The sub was detected by U.S. Navy ships enforcing the United States’ quarantine line, established to prevent Soviet ships from delivering more military supplies to Cuba. The detection heightened the tensions, and to compel the submarine to surface, the U.S. Navy used non-lethal depth charges, known as “practice” depth charges. Although not intended to destroy the submarine, they created immense pressure and noise, leading the crew of B-59 to believe that a full-scale war might have already started, especially since they had lost contact with Moscow for several days due to communication failures.

The protocol on Soviet submarines armed with nuclear weapons required the consensus of the captain, the political officer, and the second-in-command. This measure was intended to prevent any rash decision to launch a nuclear strike. Amidst the escalating crisis and the stress from the depth charges, both the captain and the political officer were in favor of launching the nuclear weapon, fearing that war had already begun. However, Arkhipov, demonstrating remarkable calm and reason, strongly opposed this action. Arkhipov insisted on not launching the torpedo and urged the captain to surface the submarine and await direct orders from Moscow. His actions defused the immediate threat and avoided a catastrophic nuclear exchange, effectively preventing what would surely have escalated into a full-scale nuclear war.

Had either Arkhipov or JFK been nearly any other man around, I don’t see how nukes wouldn’t have been used. And let it be known that it was in fact, clear-headed, mutual de-escalation which ended the Cuban Missile Crisis—a secret deal between JFK and Khrushchev where they simply agreed to remove missiles from each other’s borders. Ideas like that today cause the Lindsay Grahams and Hillary Clintons of DC (which is most people in DC) to call you a weak traitor or a foreign leader’s puppet at best.

As a former submariner who was stationed on an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, I can’t help but have a nuclear backdrop to every single foreign policy discussion. We slept between the missiles as our bunk rooms were in-between the missile tubes. A distance runner, I opted to run laps around the warheads in the upper level of the missile compartment rather than the treadmill in lower level. Although it involved frequent sharp turns, there’s something about feeling the ground (or floor) below you moving which helps clear the mind and process things which a treadmill doesn’t accomplish. So, I’ve processed the unfathomably destructive force of ICBMs a few times. However, when looking at western leaders today, I can’t help but think it doesn’t factor into their calculus at all, assuming they are even capable of thinking critically. Furthermore, position on the globe doesn’t even matter. ICBMs can be launched from anywhere and hit anywhere, further removing them from the calculus.

Here’s where I would normally go on my rant about the corrupt military industrial complex: the influence of foreign governments, the cronyism of the defense industry, the absurd zero-context or outright lies propagated by mainstream media, and the revolving door of generals, admirals, and congressmen. Our current Secretary of Defense was on the Board of Directors of Raytheon for God’s sake! However, there are plenty of good articles from independent journalists on those subjects and it’s not my focus here.

In a world with unserious leaders relying on their arrogant and unwarranted sense of superiority, we could at least use a few good advisors who are slow to anger, humble, and wisely restrained. I can’t help but wonder if there is a Vasily Arkhipov out there right now, speaking measured restraint to the right people at the right time, avoiding the rash actions or miscalculations which could lead the world into a conflict with consequences mankind has never seen before, and most haven’t even seriously pondered or imagine is possible.

If we can’t have another JFK – whose measured decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis helped avert disaster – perhaps we can at least have an Arkhipov. We need leaders and advisors who prioritize de-escalation and have the wisdom to navigate the complexities of modern geopolitics without resorting to the brinkmanship that once brought us perilously close to nuclear war. Arkhipov’s legacy is a reminder that sometimes, the most heroic actions are those that prevent catastrophe, not those that incite it.

Our current geopolitical climate demands a renewed focus on diplomacy, restraint, and the kind of quiet heroism demonstrated by Arkhipov. As citizens, we must advocate for leaders who value these principles, and as a global community, we must recognize and support the voices that call for peace over conflict. In remembering Arkhipov’s crucial intervention, we are reminded of the profound impact one individual can have in steering the course of history away from destruction and towards the preservation of humanity.

Let us hope and work for a future where the Arkhipovs of the world are not just remembered in history but actively advising our leaders today, guiding them away from the precipice and towards a more stable and peaceful world.

Jonathan Grotefendt was a 1st Class Petty Officer, Nuclear-Trained Electrician’s Mate on the USS Nevada, an Ohio-Class Submarine. After his 6 years in the Navy, he moved his family to Central Texas where they built a house and homeschool their 4 beautiful children. You can read his other pieces here.