How three courageous individuals saved humanity
by Ian Sinclair
19 December 2018
What difference can one person make when it comes to influencing global politics?
Very little, you might think. However, a careful reading of several crisis points in modern history throws up inspiring examples of individuals acting courageously under intense pressure to save humanity from itself.
One such person is Vasili Arkipov, a Soviet naval officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, whose story activist Milan Rai rivetingly tells in a 2014 article for Telesur (and which the account that follows is based on). With the US and Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear war, on 27 October a US taskforce of surface ships and aircraft was harassing, in international waters, a Soviet submarine, B-59, on which Arkipov was second in command. In an attempt to force the submarine to the surface and drive it away from Cuba, the US ships conducted extreme sonar sound attacks on the B-59, and dropped five practice depth charges. The number is important. A few days earlier the US had sent a document to the Soviet forces explaining their signalling system for a ship to surface was five practice depth charges. The commanders on B-59, who were used to three warning practice depth charges as the signal to surface, never received this information.
With the submarine crew enduring temperatures of around 45oC and dangerous levels of CO2, the captain of B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch, concluded that a war between the US and the Soviet Union had started and ordered the firing of a nuclear torpedo at the US taskfore. The firing of the “special weapon” required the consent of the captain, the Political Officer and the second in command, Arkipov. The Political Officer consented. Arkipov refused to give his consent. “He halted the firing of a nuclear weapon that would almost certainly have triggered US retaliation against Cuba and the Soviet Union that would have led to a devastating global nuclear war”, Rai notes.
Fast forward to 1983 and another Soviet commander single-handedly stopped another catastrophic nuclear exchange between the US and Soviet Union.
It was a time of high tensions in the Cold War. US president Ronald Reagan had recently called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire”, and was modernising the US’s nuclear weapons, with medium-range missiles about to be moved into Western Europe.
A Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet air defence forces, on 26 September Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, a secret command centre near Moscow that monitored the Soviet Union’s early warning satellites orbiting over the US.
“Early in the morning alarms went off and computers sent signals that a US Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched from an American base”, the Guardian noted in its obituary of Petrov, who died last year, aged 77. “A few seconds later they seemed to detect that four more missiles had been launched.”
Petrov’s job was to tell his superior officers, who would report to the Soviet military’s general staff, who would then consult the Soviet leader at the time, Yuri Andropov, about launching a counterattack. “Petrov’s computer systems said the reliability of the satellites’ information was at the ‘highest’ level’”, explained the Guardian. “Only 25 minutes would pass between the missiles’ launch and their detonation.”
Luckily, Petrov decided to report the alert as a system malfunction. “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he explained to the Washington Post. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.” He was right. The alarm was apparently caused by a Soviet satellite mistaking the sun’s reflection off the tops of high-altitude clouds for a US missile launch.
More recently, an American intelligence analyst played a key role in stopping US military action against Iran, supposedly because of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.
In October 2007 US President George Bush had given a press conference with hostilities rising between the US and Iran. “I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War Three it seem like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon”, he said. Discussing this period of US-Iranian relations in his 2010 memoir Decision Points, Bush noted “military action would always be on the table”. However, the interventionist Bush Administration didn’t contend with the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).
“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”, were the report’s first words, which represented the consensus of the 16 US intelligence agencies. The principal author of the report was Thomas Fingar, an intelligence analyst who became Chairman of the National Intelligence Council in 2005, following the intelligence catastrophe of the Iraq War. According to former CIA officer Ray McGovern, Fingar was “a practitioner of the old-time ethos of objective, non-politicized intelligence.”
Bush described the NIE as “an eye-popping declaration” in his book. It “tied my hands on the military side… after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program”, he wrote.
“Almost single-handedly he [Fingar] has stopped or, at the very least, postponed any US military action against Iran”, the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill noted a few weeks after the NIE was made public.
Comprised of senior people in the military or intelligence services acting in extraordinary situations to prevent mass killing, we should remember and celebrate all three of them. Rai suggests 27 October should be Arkhipov Day, a world holiday, for example.
But what can normal people like you or I do to make the world a better place?
Speaking in the essential 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent, US dissident Noam Chomsky maintains critical thinking and resistance is extremely difficult on your own: “You can’t fight the world alone. Some people can, but it’s pretty rare.”
“The way to do it is through organisation”, he says. Individuals can maximise their influence and power by joining together with others, providing the opportunity for the pooling of resources and knowledge which may, with lots of work, eventually create the conditions in which elites can be challenged and possibly defeated.
From Extinction Rebellion to political parties such as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the Green Party and grassroots media outlets like Peace News and Novara Media, there is no shortage of organisations working for substantial change who would welcome any support they can get.
Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.