Fifty years ago, in October 1962, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. On October 22, 1962, after reviewing photographic evidence, President John F. Kennedy informed the world that the Soviet Union was building secret missile bases in Cuba, just 90 miles off the shores of Florida. For the next 13 days, the world held its breath as the Soviet Union and the United States confronted each other about missiles stationed in Cuba. While politicians sought a resolution to the standoff, no one was aware of the events taking place inside the Soviet submarine B-59 in the waters off the coast of Florida.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secrets of the Dead chronicles how the actions of one man, during arguably the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, averted nuclear war.
The Man Who Saved the World, premiering Tuesday, October 23 at 9 pm ET on PBS (check local listings), tells the unsung story of Soviet naval officer Vasili Arkhipov, the Brigade Chief of Staff on submarine B-59, who refused to fire a nuclear missile and saved the world from World War III and nuclear disaster.
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For decades, Arkhipov’s story was hidden, only emerging in recent years. The events depicted in The Man Who Saved the World unfolded over four hours on October 27, 1962, when fear over the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its highest. It combines dramatizations – set in a claustrophobic submarine running out of air – with eyewitness accounts and expert testimony to reveal the terrifying events happening beneath the waves.
Four Soviet submarines were sent on a mission known only to a handful of Communist party officials. Their destination was a mystery to be revealed once they were at sea. Under their orders, each submarine was to travel 7,000 miles from a top secret naval base in the Arctic Circle across the Atlantic to be permanently stationed in Mariel, Cuba where they would serve as the vanguard of a Soviet force a mere 90 miles from mainland America.
The commander of each submarine had permission to act without direct orders from Moscow if they believed they were under threat. Each of the four subs was carrying what the Soviets called a ‘special weapon’, a single nuclear torpedo, comparable in strength to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The torpedo could only be fired if the submarine captain and political officer were in agreement. Each had one half of a key which, when joined, unlocked the firing mechanism.
Ryurik Ketov, who is interviewed in The Man Who Saved the World, commanded one of the four subs. “I had a written order that I could release it,” says Ketov. “And if there was an order to fire the torpedo I would do it without a second thought. For the first time in life a commander of a submarine had a nuclear weapon and had the authority to fire the missile at his command.”
However, aboard the B-59, three men—not two—needed to be in agreement. As commander of the entire submarine fleet, Arkhipov had the power to veto firing the missile and was one of the only men who knew about the mission in advance. Fifty years later, The Man Who Saved the World recounts Arkhipov’s courageous story and how, with a single act, he stopped the destruction of life as we know it.
Secrets of the Dead: The Man Who Saved the World is a Bedlam Production for THIRTEEN in association with WNET and Channel 1 Russia. Executive producer for WNET is Steve Burns. Coordinating producer is Stephanie Carter. For 50 years, THIRTEEN has been making the most of the rich resources and passionate people of New York and the world, reaching millions of people with on-air and online programming that celebrates arts and culture, offers insightful commentary on the news of the day, explores the worlds of science and nature, and invites students of all ages to have fun while learning.
These programs are among the full-length episodes available for viewing on Secrets of the Dead Online (pbs.org/secrets). Along with the extensive online video catalog, the series web site provides resources for educators with lesson plans for middle school and high school teachers.
Secrets of the Dead has received 10 CINE Golden Eagle Awards and six Emmy nominations, among numerous other awards.