It’s generally accepted that John F Kennedy was the hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But actually he wasn’t.
A Russian that we never heard of was.
In 1962, Vasili Arkhipov was second in command on a Russian submarine.
It didn’t have nuclear missiles, but it did have nuclear-tipped torpedoes.
It was submerged and had been out of contact for several days.
But the crew knew tensions were at boiling point between the USSR and the USA.
They knew war could break out at any moment.
Suddenly they were surrounded by a US aircraft carrier and 11 destroyers.
The Americans started depth-charging the submarine.
Obviously war had started.
The only option was to use their nuclear-tipped torpedoes.
What the Russians couldn’t know was that the Americans were dropping ‘practice’ depth charges.
In the world above the waves, the Americans knew these wouldn’t do any real damage.
They were signalling the Russians to surface.
Meanwhile all the Russians knew was that they were being attacked.
They saw the aircraft carrier through their periscope.
The obvious thing to do was hit it with their nuclear tipped torpedo.
This was about half as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, it would destroy the carrier and most of the destroyers.
But they had to do it fast, before the depth charges sank their sub.
Their rules said they needed the agreement of all three senior officers on board.
The captain said fire, the political officer said fire.
That left it down to the second-in-command: Vasili Arkhipov.
If he agreed, they would sink the US battle-group and World War Three would have started.
Obviously, Vasili Arkhipov didn’t agree.
It’s obvious because it’s the reason we’re all here today.
Vasili Arkhipov decided to gamble the lives of his crew against all the lives on earth.
The sub surfaced and the nuclear-tipped torpedoes were never launched.
No thanks to the US Navy.
In 2002, Thomas Blanton (director of the US National Security Archive) said, "Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."
Arthur M. Schlesinger (advisor to JFK) said, "This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, it was the most dangerous moment in human history."
But for me the most telling comment came from Robert McNamara (US Secretary of Defence) who said, "We came very close to nuclear war. Closer than we knew at the time."
That really is the nub.
Nobody knew how close they came because nobody knew what was going on the minds of the people on the submarine.
The people above the waves, dropping practice depth charges, lived in one reality.
So they thought everyone lived in their reality.
They expected the submarine to realise these were just practice depth charges.
The Americans didn’t allow for the possibility of any other reality.
And today we still do that.
Everyone involved in mass media carries on as if our reality is the only reality.
It isn’t possible that any other reality exists.
It’s as if we’ve got all the answers and no other answers are possible.
And we’ll carry on doing what we think is right because we never learn.
It isn’t what we don’t know that can hurt us.
It’s what we don’t know we don’t know that can really hurt us.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.