The Man Who Saved the World: Part I
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The Man Who Saved the World: Part I

by | published January 12th, 2019

Editor’s Note: The following three-part story was written by my good friend and colleague Bill Patalon. He has been an enthusiastic listener to my stories from my time in counter-intelligence during the Cold War. In fact, he and I recently sat down for Episode II of my Spy Tales series. If you’d like to listen to Episode I of Spy Tales and learn more, just click here. In the meantime, let’s travel back in time to the Cuban Missile Crisis…

His name was Vasili Arkhipov.

He was one of the unsung heroes of the Cold War.

In fact, unless you’re a serious student of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I’ll wager you’ve never even heard this name.

And yet, you probably owe your life to this man.

We all do – millions of us – here in America, and throughout the rest of the world.

At the darkest moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arkhipov was the solitary voice of reason and stood his ground in the face of unimaginable pressure to give in. It was a stance that literally put his life in jeopardy – and, by extension, the lives of his family members, too.

But Arkhipov did not waver, did not fold – and historians now say he almost single-handedly thwarted a nuclear war.

Vasili Arkhipov saved millions of lives.

He was an honest-to-goodness hero.

But he was also our enemy.

You see, Vasili Arkhipov was a Russian.

But he was also one of the “good guys.”

Literally.

As British commentator Edward Wilson wrote a few years back, “if you were born before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov saved your life.”

Today I’m going to share this little-known tale from the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a great story. And like most great stories, it also conveys some powerful lessons – lessons for investing … and lessons for life.

And the core lesson is the best one of all. It’s the lesson that reiterates the power of courage, of personal conviction – and the great things you can achieve when you’re willing to “go it alone,” and travel the independent path you know to be the correct one.

I’m going to bring all of this to you …

And I’m going to start by sharing a story of my own …

Wise Words from a Wise Man

When October rolls around each year, most investors think about some of the epic market crashes the 10th month of the year has brought.

But as a professional journalist, lifelong history buff and son of a successful aerospace and naval-systems engineer who spent much of his 50-year career in the defense industry, I also think about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 13-day standoff that brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war back in 1962.

I was only 11 months old at the time, so I have no personal memories of this momentous two-week stretch. But my Dad – who was 80 when I lost him this past June – talked to me about it many times.

And back in 2013, Dad and I sat down for a detailed “interview” about this period – which serves as a wonderfully personal “scene-setter” for the bigger story that I’ll move onto next.

In October 1962, we were living in a rented gray rancher in Durham, Conn. My Dad, William, spent his days working as a control-systems engineer at Pratt & Whitney Corp., and his nights pursuing a master’s in physics at Trinity College. My Mom, Kathleen, was a nurse.

“You know, Willy, I remember that there was a lot of concern about what we knew was happening – and we were doing what we could to prepare,” Dad remembered during that chat five years ago. “We were renting the house in Durham, and buying a lot of canned foods and storing them in the basement. At work – at Pratt & Whitney – someone came up with a low-cost bunch of dosimeters … the old style – in fact, I still have them at home. That’s really what everyone was doing – looking for ways to get ready and prepare for a possible nuclear attack. We were stockpiling stuff at home: Water, canned goods, dosimeters.

“I don’t recall being overwrought. It went on for some time, and we were kind of nervous, but not to the point that we were praying, crying or wringing our hands,” he continued. “It was a real threat, and we recognized it as such. But we were dealing with it. Back then, of course, we didn’t have the Internet. We had a simple black-and-white television, and gathered around the daily evening newscast each day to see what had transpired. You weren’t bombarded like you would be today – with 14 talk shows, the talking heads, the analysts. If we’d had that all to deal with back then, who knows, we probably would have been driven off the edge.”

“At the end of the day, though, we didn’t change our habits – especially with our jobs,” my Dad concluded. “From a personal standpoint, we just carried on as normal. We went to work every day. There was really nothing else you could do. We saw it as doing our duty.”

When I read this now, Dad’s words give me chills. He was a smart guy – a brilliant guy – but also one with an alluring warmth. His career was important – one reason we lived in five different places before I became a teenager. But he also loved his family.

And things like “integrity” and “honor” and “country” and “duty” – mentioned above – were more than just words to him.

And Dad’s view gives you a good idea of how Main Street America viewed the precipice the world found itself on in October 1962…

Anatomy of a Threat

In my collection of old tie pins, I have two related to U.S. President John F. Kennedy. My favorite – a campaign pin from his first run for the White House – is a likeness of PT-109 with the legend “Kennedy ’60.”

During that run for president, one of Kennedy’s key platform “planks” was the “missile gap” – an alleged situation where the United States had far fewer ballistic missiles than its Soviet nemesis.

It was a “scare tactic” – and an effective one, at that.

One reason this tactic worked so well was that long-range ballistic missiles hadn’t been deployed on an operational basis for all that long. (According to one history that I read, Russia’s first strategic ICBM, the R-7 Semyorka, was first deployed in early 1959, was first tested that December, and reached full deployment by early 1962. The first U.S. ICBM – the SM-65 Atlas – achieved operational status in October 1959.)

Sub-launched ballistic missiles were also in their infancy as truly effective “deterrence” weapons.

The Pentagon has zeroed in on this game-changing technology (and they’re pouring in billions)

For instance, the U.S. Navy Polaris missile went into development in 1956, was first launched from a submerged submarine in July 1960 and entered service in late 1961.

As is always the case, the technology (and its limitations) helped shape strategy.

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, a key element of his election platform was the so-called “missile gap” – an alleged situation where the United States had far fewer ballistic missiles than its Soviet nemesis.

In fact, just the opposite was true: In 1961, the USSR had only four ICBMs, while the United States had 170 and was building more. A year later, the Soviets still only had a couple dozen.

Thanks to the revolutionary Polaris missile, America had a sea-based advantage, as well. It had eight ballistic-missile submarines (known as “boomers,” in Navy parlance). And each sub was capable of launching 16 missiles – with a range of roughly 1,400 miles.

All told, the U.S. military had 27,000 nuclear warheads – about 7.5 times the number the Soviets had. But Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev understood the threat the United States felt, and exploited it well, boasting that the Soviet Union was building nukes “like sausages,” and would continue to do so.

Generally speaking, the early longest-range ICBMs were hulking affairs. They were housed in – and launched from – “silos” that could be targeted by bombers or missiles for “first strikes,” or for counterstrikes.

To better target Moscow, the U.S. military placed nuclear missiles in Turkey. Unbeknownst to Washington, Moscow countered by installing intermediate-range nukes in Cuba. (In fact, Khrushchev had two key objectives: Counter the U.S. deployment into Turkey – and get “leverage” that would keep America from trying to avenge the botched “Bay of Pigs” affair by again attempting to invade the Soviet satellite country.)

Moscow’s plan was to place 40 launchers in Cuba – an arsenal that would effectively target nearly the entire continental United States. The Cuban populace was watching this unfold, and hundreds of reports reached Miami – and then the U.S. intelligence community.

Virtually all the reports were confusing (some were even “laughable,” according to one account I read.), and most seemed to describe anti-aircraft missiles.

But there were five reports that bothered intelligence analysts – that couldn’t be defensive missiles – and that couldn’t be dismissed.

These accounts talked about big trucks carrying large, canvas-covered cylinders – trucks so big that they had to do a lot of backing-and-turning to maneuver their way through Cuba’s tiny hamlets…

Sincerely,


Bill Patalon

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  1. January 15th, 2019 at 00:02 | #1

    Good

  2. January 15th, 2019 at 09:58 | #2

    That is nice work i would like your model

  3. CUZIN ERN
    January 17th, 2019 at 04:25 | #3

    In response re The Cold War: i was there too as an M.P. guarding all of that clutter and everything including you might be call it @ Ansbach signal.
    That was the war they could shoot @ us and we couldn’t shoot back!
    Our first special order read: no warning shots will be fired!
    Willian S. Hoag was commanding in that period, not politicized in his Europe command. In fact, all Generals i knew were are gentlemen with no guessing what they would not allow including NATO officers!
    We have one General in our family makeup! Wish i could kill politics running our services

  4. Leslie Johnson
    January 17th, 2019 at 11:32 | #4

    We love this history story. My husband and I are reading it together. He and I were both active duty military with 30 yrs. combined. He now works as one of the deputies at Homeland Security headquarters, In the policy sector.
    So, with our history, you can imagine our pleasure hearing this story. We both remember hiding under our desk with bomb drills. Ha Ha

  5. Gary
    January 19th, 2019 at 16:45 | #5

    Wow, what a story. So heart felt.

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