Since nuclear weapons were developed, intelligent disobedience has averted global catastrophe on more than one occasion. In 2001, documents were released that showed that the three submarines on a mission into Cuban waters during the missile crisis in 1962 were all armed with nuclear tipped torpedoes. The commanders of the vessels had orders from the Kremlin allowing them to use these nuclear torpedoes without further consultation.
After the USSR sent nuclear missiles to Cuba, the submarines had entered Cuban waters before the US blockade on the island was in place. As John F Kennedy’s secretary for defense Robert McNamara said, in the nuclear age, “One mistake will destroy nations”.
Captain Ketov, who commanded one of the submarines said, “If one of my friends would deploy nuclear weapons, I would deploy them too.”
Once the US surface vessels became aware of the submarines, they chased them in a cat and mouse game. The submarine crews were exhausted, tolerating temperatures over 100°F/38°C. Hemmed in by the US ships, Commander Valentin Savitsky primed his nuclear torpedoes for launch. Each had the capacity of the Hiroshima bomb – powerful enough to vaporize even the largest US vessel. Above them, a US ship launched grenades and depth charges to show that they knew the submarine’s location, and to make it surface.
The crew of the submarine had no way of knowing whether the explosions they were hearing were warnings or were intended to sink them. Some crew members were convinced that they were under attack and must retaliate. At this point, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov spoke to his commander and persuaded him to surface rather than to launch the nuclear missiles.
US Navy Captain Charles Rozier is another hero of this very near miss. As he later said, “My view, all along, from the beginning of the time that I got contact with this submarine, was that I didn’t want to start World War III.” Of course, he had no idea that the submarine was carrying nuclear-tipped torpedoes.
At one point, a US sonar operator erroneously reported a torpedo in the water, heading towards them. But commanders on both sides kept their nerve. When the first Russian submarine surfaced, the nearest US vessel signaled to see if she required help. The Russian submarines were courteously escorted out of the blockaded zone, and World War III was averted. The Cuban Missile Crisis led to the creation of a “hot-line” between the US president and the Soviet premier.
On 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system when it was reported that five or six missiles had been launched from the United States. At the time, NATO was engaged in exercises on the borders of the USSR’s satellite Warsaw Pact countries, which made the situation even worse.
Petrov decided that the reports were a false alarm, and prevented a nuclear attack on the United States and its NATO allies that probably would have caused World War III. It was later found that the false alarm had been created by the reflection of sunlight on high-altitude clouds above North Dakota that had been interpreted by Soviet space satellites as a missile launch.
Petrov had to make a judgment call. He decided to make no report, as there was no verification from ground radar, and that a launch of so few missiles by the US was unlikely. Even so, he later said that he was not completely convinced. He believed that if he had made a report, his colleagues might have initiated full-scale retaliation. Soviet leaders would have had only minutes to decide whether to respond.
Petrov was at first commended by superiors, but then disciplined for failing to properly record the incident. He would eventually be rewarded with two World Citizen awards, the Dresden Prize and the German Media Award. He also became the subject of the documentary The Man Who Saved the World.
As Ira Chaleff says in his seminal text on the subject: ‘Intelligent disobedience is about finding the healthy balance for living in a system with rules and authorities while maintaining our own responsibility for the actions we take.’ These are just two instances of the power of intelligent disobedience: doing right when what you are told to do is wrong.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Have you read Ira Chaleff’s Intelligent Disobedience? Do you have a story about intelligent disobedience that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!