Disaster was as close as the press of a red button. Four Russian submarines patrolled the Florida coast. US warships had dropped depth charges. The Russian captain was stressed, trigger-happy, and ready to destroy a few American cities. Each sub was armed with a nuclear warhead. Each warhead had the potential to repeat a Hiroshima-level calamity.
Had it not been for the contagious calm of a clear-thinking officer, World War III might have begun in 1962. His name was Vasili Arkhipov. He was the thirty-six-year-old chief of staff for a clandestine fleet of Russian submarines. The crew members assumed they were being sent on a training mission off the Siberian coast. They came to learn that they had been commissioned to travel five thousand miles to the southwest to set up a spearhead for a base near Havana, Cuba.
The subs went south, and so did their mission. In order to move quickly, the submarines traveled on the surface of the water, where they ran head-on into Hurricane Daisy. The fifty-foot waves left the men nauseated and the operating systems compromised.
Then came the warm waters. Soviet subs were designed for the polar waters, not the tropical Atlantic. Temperatures inside the vessels exceeded 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The crew battled the heat and claustrophobia for much of the three-week journey. By the time they were near the coast of Cuba, the men were exhausted, on edge, and anxious.
The situation worsened when the subs received cryptic instructions from Moscow to turn northward and patrol the coastline of Florida. Soon after they entered American waters, their radar picked up the signal of a dozen ships and aircraft. The Russians were being followed by the Americans. The US ships set off depth charges. The Russians assumed they were under attack.
The captain lost his cool. He summoned his staff to his command post and pounded the table with his fists. “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not disgrace our navy!”
The world was teetering on the edge of war. But then Vasili Arkhipov asked for a moment with his captain. The two men stepped to the side. He urged his superior to reconsider. He suggested they talk to the Americans before reacting. The captain listened. His anger cooled. He gave the order for the vessels to surface.
The Americans encircled the Russians and kept them under surveillance. What they intended to do is unclear as in a couple of days the Soviets dove, eluded the Americans, and made it back home safely.
This incredible brush with death was kept secret for decades. Arkhipov deserved a medal, yet he lived the rest of his life with no recognition. It was not until 2002 that the public learned of the barely avoided catastrophe. As the director of the National Security Archive stated, “The lesson from this [event] is that a guy named Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”
Why does this story matter? You will not spend three weeks in a sweltering Russian sub. But you may spend a semester carrying a heavy class load, or you may fight the headwinds of a recession. You may spend night after night at the bedside of an afflicted child or aging parent. You may fight to keep a family together, a business afloat, a school from going under.
You will be tempted to press the button and release, not nuclear warheads, but angry outbursts, a rash of accusations, a fiery retaliation of hurtful words. Unchecked anxiety unleashes an Enola Gay of destruction. How many people have been wounded as a result of unbridled stress?
And how many disasters have been averted because one person refused to buckle under the strain? It is this composure Paul is summoning in the first of a triad of proclamations. “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:5–6 NIV).
Max Lucado, Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017).
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