How One Man Saved the Planet

By Joe Darby

You and I are alive today — or at least not living in a primitive, savage wasteland, because of the good sense of one Russian naval officer 59 years ago.

I’m talking, of course, about the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962. I just read an interesting magazine article about it and I thought this would be worth sharing.

I’m sure that if you’re in your late 60s or older you remember the time. On the critical day itself, when the world was waiting to see whether Soviet Premier Khrushchev would back down or go to war, I spent the afternoon in a Baton Rouge bar with a cute redhead. The place was called Rip’s Huddle and it was built into the side of a hill going down to the Mississippi River so my friend and I figured it might offer some sort of bunker-like protection when Baton Rouge was obliterated.

We would have been incinerated like everyone and everything else, of course, but at least we were in pleasant surroundings. We were juniors at LSU, wondering if we had a future life. Well, we did, thanks to that one Russian naval officer.

A little background here. Fidel Castro had taken over Cuba in a revolution in 1959, swinging to the extreme left and promptly received the support of the Soviet Union. In 1962, Khrushchev got the bright idea to place medium range nuclear missiles in Cuba, that could have reached half of the United States in minutes, including Washington, DC. This was years before the breakup of the Soviet Union, of course. Both that country and the US had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the earth several times over.

So when US aircraft over flew Cuba and photographed the installation of the missiles, the crisis was upon us. President John F. Kennedy, who had presided over the embarrassing failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba the year before, declared a naval “quarantine” around Cuba and said no Soviet ships would be allowed through.

After several days of bluff and brinkmanship, Khrushchev backed down and agreed to remove the missiles. In exchange, Kennedy promised to not invade Cuba and to remove US missiles from Turkey, which bordered the Soviet Union.

But the public never realized at the time how close we came to Armageddon. An American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba during the crisis and that added to the tension, of course. The crucial moment, however, occurred when the captain of a Russian submarine ordered a nuclear torpedo attack against US warships.

That would have cooked our goose. But the captain’s superior officer ordered the sub to stand down and not fire the torpedoes. Unfortunately, the magazine article I referred to earlier offered no further detail of the incident.

But, as you can see, civilization came within a hair’s breadth of being knocked back into the stone age. Maybe all nations should erect a statue of that unknown Russian naval officer. He deserves it.