Thursday, 25 October 2007

The Man who saved the world 45 years ago on Saturday

All of us need heroes and here is a story about someone who in an intolerable situation successfully managed a crisis which could have engulfed the planet. Remarkably it has got very little coverage.

On October 27th 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, a US warship was enforcing the quarantine of Cuba by depth charging a Russian submarine. To the Russian Captain, running out of oxygen and with temperatures on board around 100F and rising, they were under attack and were honour bound to retaliate regardless of the costs. He ordered that the nuclear weapons should be armed. Russian naval procedure required that the captain and two other officers had to agree to the firing. One second captain agreed, but the other, Second Captain Vasili Arkhipov, argued that the conditions for firing had not been reached, the hull had not been damaged and he succeeded in calming the situation.

The submarine's records are now public and at a Conference held in Havana on October 13th 2002 on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 40 years after the event, Robert MacNamara, the then US Defence Secretary, recognised how much closer to nuclear war we had been than anyone had imagined.

Amongst the lessons from this are:
You need robust processes for your strategy which are clearly understood when working under conditions of great stress and danger.
Moral courage to go ,if necessary, against the opinions of colleagues is essential.
Three heads are better than two in such situations.
The consequences need to be thought through. The US attendees at the Conference admitted that they had not done so thoroughly enough.

Sadly, Vasili Arkhipov died a few years ago, but he deserves a special place in risk and crisis management and in the relation of strategy to decision making.

I, for one, will toast Second Captain Arkhipov this coming Saturday, do you likewise - because of him, you can.

1 comment:

Stephen Elston said...

I will toast Vasily Archipov - as will I toast all three men. A democratic decision was taken and risk management is a team effort.