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Defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis: Naval Quarantine as Strategic De-escalation

By LtCol Brent Stricker

“I thought of the many times that I had hear the military take positions which, if wrong, had the advantage that no one would be around at the end to know.” –Robert F. Kennedy, October 19, 1962.1


The Cuban Missile Crisis has lessons each generation should study, such as the danger of nuclear powers struggling from competition to potential conflict. The upcoming 60th Anniversary is an important occasion to review what happened when the Soviet Union and the United States nearly stumbled into nuclear war. The Russia-Ukraine war has a similar parallel with Western powers providing weapons for Ukraine’s defense, particularly since their justifications are identical to those made by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for sending weapons to Cuba.

President Kennedy’s actions during the crisis, however, were informed by reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August where European powers were seemingly unable to find anything but a military solution to avoid the First World War. President’s Kennedy’s own advisors urged the same offensive military option against Cuba. This article will explore the Crisis, the search for options to avoid confrontation, the legality of the quarantine, and lessons for rules of engagement for the armed forces when trying to deter and de-escalate during a crisis.


The Cuban Missile Crisis began at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, October 16, 1962, when President Kennedy called his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to come to the White House. The Crisis would last for the next 13 Days. Reconnaissance aircraft had photographed Soviet installations under construction since the summer of 1962 to house medium-range ballistic missiles with a range of one thousand nautical miles. The Soviets were also deploying bombers to Cuba. Robert Kennedy later noted in his biography of this period, “[T]he Russians, under the guise of a fishing village, were constructing a large naval shipyard and a base for submarines.”2 The Soviet Union was attempting to establish all three branches of the nuclear triad in Cuba: land-based missiles, bombers, and nuclear ballistic missile submarines.

This foreign military presence challenged nearly two centuries of United States dominance of the Western Hemisphere to the exclusion of other Eastern Hemisphere powers as evidenced by the Monroe Doctrine, the 1939 Panama Declaration, and the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. Despite Soviet peaceful protestations of seeking to provide aid to the Cuban people, these weapons would threaten the territorial integrity of all nations within their range. Placing them in Cuba allowed the Soviets to bypass early warning systems which were directed north since a Soviet nuclear attack was expected to come over the Arctic.

Cuba becoming a flashpoint for a nuclear war is even more telling considering its recent history. A revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro had swept the previous Cuban dictator from power in January 1959. The revolutionary leader’s decision to nationalize all American property in Cuba in August 1960 was a turning point in U.S.-Cuba relations. The outgoing Eisenhower administration tried economic sanctions, but ultimately severed diplomatic relations with Cuba. A failed invasion by Cuban exiles, planned under the Eisenhower Administration and executed under the new Kennedy administration, left the question of Cuban territorial integrity unanswered. In a bi-polar world, Cuba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance.

EXCOMM: Delay a Decision

The Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) assembled on the morning of October 16, 1962 to discuss options. The initial reaction was to see the threat and attack. An attack by the United States targeting Soviet troops and equipment in Cuba would likely lead to a similar retaliation by the Soviet Union. Inevitable escalation would result and two nuclear powers and their contending defensive pacts would likely be in a nuclear war.

Faced with a lack of options, the President withdrew from EXCOMM, leaving it to find another solution. This delayed the decision of whether to attack. It is likely practical considerations that delayed the order of air strikes since there could be no guarantee of destroying all of the missile sites.

Intelligence indicated that in addition to the material in Cuba, Soviet shipping was underway with more offensive weapons. This raised the option of imposing a naval blockade or quarantine on Cuba. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued a “quarantine would convey to Khrushchev the determination of the President to see those missiles were removed, without stimulating a military response.” The President decided to impose the quarantine, after a delay of three days, on the afternoon of October 21.

President’s Speech

President Kennedy met with Congressional leaders on Monday, October 22, 1962. The Congressional leadership had much the same reaction as EXCOMM thinking only of attack or “at least something stronger than a blockade.”3 The President noted that attack would lead to reprisal, and he would not take that chance until he exhausted all other options.4

President Kennedy addressed the nation, explaining the threat the missiles posed: “Each of these missiles is capable of striking Washington D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area.”5 President Kennedy explained that a quarantine would stop all shipping bound for Cuba for inspection, regardless of flag state or port of origin. Any containing “offensive weapons” would be turned away. The quarantine label was benign, as blockades are acts of war. Kennedy also compared the quarantine to the Soviets’ 1948 Berlin Blockade with the notable exception that the quarantine would not deny Cubans the “necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do” in 1948.

President Kennedy framed the issue as a regional problem, rather than a dispute solely with Cuba or the Soviet Union. He called for the matter to be put before the Organization of American States (OAS), reasserting the two centuries of Western independence to exclude Eastern Hemispheric powers noting, “The United Nations Charter allows for regional security arrangements—and the nations of this Hemisphere decided long ago against the military presence of outside powers.” He also warned of a retaliatory response for offensive action by the Soviet Union from Cuba stating, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

The following day, the OAS Organ of Consultation met and voted unanimously—save Cuba which had been expelled—a resolution for its members to “’take all measures, individually and collectively including the use of armed force’” to stop the transport of additional offensive weapons into Cuba.

Legality of Quarantine

The quarantine should be viewed as a collective act of self-defense. War is prohibited by Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter. Article 51 of the UN Charter authorizes member states to act in self-defense, but requires notification to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for resolution. In all other instances, only the UNSC can authorize the use of force. Of course, in a conflict between permanent members of the UNSC (Soviet Union-United States) the veto power would prohibit the UNSC from resolving the crisis.

The Kennedy administration made use of Article 52 of the UN Charter and its provisions for regional agreements to bypass this roadblock. As noted in the President’s speech, the OAS acted as a regional body with a resolution calling for the dismantling and withdrawal of missiles from Cuba. The Kennedy administration argued that the quarantine did not require UNSC authorization because under Article 53(1) the resolution recommended removal and armed force was not necessarily required to effect this removal.

When acting in self-defense jus ad bellum, one must consider the Caroline Standard. The “necessity of self-defense, [must be] instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.” As the President noted, “Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may be regarded as a definite threat to peace.” If the missiles were launched, there would be little warning and no defense. The demand for their removal and a quarantine to prevent further importation of offensive weapons was a reasonable response.

The Presidential proclamation created the quarantine zone which consisted of two parts: a five-hundred-mile circle centered on Havana in the west and a five-hundred-mile circle centered around eastern Cuba. The quarantine zone did not close these areas to shipping, it merely prohibited the transport of certain offensive weapons. These were “surface-to-surface missiles; bomber aircraft; bombs, air-to-surface rockets and guided missiles; mechanical or electronic equipment to support or operate the above items; and any other classes of material hereafter designated by the Secretary of Defense.”

The quarantine may be considered similar to the law of contraband where shipping is stopped for inspection to determine if it is carrying goods for a belligerent, typically weapons. This process may also be referred to as a warship’s right to visit and search. Armed force was not required to enforce the quarantine. This measured response was reasonable. If the quarantine was resisted, force could be used.

The Kennedy administration took measures to ensure any use of force would be proportionate to the resistance faced. Ships would be signaled by radio and semaphore informing them of the quarantine and to heave to for inspection. If a ship attempted to avoid inspection, its steering and propulsion would be shot at to disable the ship. It would then be towed to a port for inspection.6

This use of force meets the proportionality requirement of jus ad bellum. A state may only use the limited, reasonable, and minimum amount of force against an aggressor.7 The quarantine had clearly stated objectives, occurred on the high seas so as not to interfere with Cuba’s territorial integrity, interfered with free navigation to the minimum amount required, and its effects could be reversed at any time.8 Most telling is that the Kennedy administration clearly stated there was no intention to go to war.9

The legality of the quarantine was of great importance to the Kennedy administration. As Robert Kennedy wrote, “It was the vote of the Organization of American States that gave legal basis for the quarantine. [It] changed our position from that of an outlaw acting in violation of international law into a country acting in accordance with twenty allies legally protecting their position.”10

“Quarantine” Not Blockade: Strategic De-escalation

The quarantine went into effect on Wednesday, Oct 24, 1962 and would remain in place until the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles and offensive weapons on Sunday, October 28, 1962.11 As noted above, the Kennedy Administration was keen to avoid any military escalation or misunderstanding by excessive use of force. Any use of force would be limited to the threat faced.12

The first ship to be contacted by the U.S. Navy was chosen specifically by the President. At 7 a.m. on Friday, October 26, the U.S. Navy boarded the Marucla, a Panamanian-owned, Lebanon registered ship chartered by the Soviet Union. It was intercepted by two destroyers USS John Pierce and USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.13 This ship was chosen because ”[President Kennedy] was demonstrating to Khrushchev that we were going to enforce the quarantine and yet, because it was not a Soviet-owned vessel, it did not represent a direct affront to the Soviets, requiring a response from them.”14 Marrucla was inspected and cleared.15

The first contact with Soviet ships was expected on Saturday, October 27. Two Soviet ships, the Gagarin and Komiles, were the first freighters. A Soviet submarine positioned itself between the U.S. Navy and the two Soviet freighters. The carrier USS Essex was sent to dispatch anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters to signal the submarine with sonar and point defense cannon (PDC) to order it to surface and identify itself. Before this happened, 20 Soviet ships near the quarantine line stopped or reversed course at 10:32 a.m. President Kennedy called off the Essex in response.16 No Soviet ships were to be stopped that day.

The Kennedy administration considered other options to pressure the Soviets and Cubans if the quarantine failed to produce results. This included the first suggested option of attack and full invasion of Cuba. President Kennedy was reluctant to pursue this option. There was serious consideration of expanding the list of prohibited items beyond offensive weapons to include petroleum imports to Cuba. It was hoped that this deliberate escalation would have an impact on the Cuban economy.17


Directing EXCOMM to find other options than attack and the Soviet pause by stopping or turning its ships around bought time for the two leaders to discuss a resolution to the crisis. On October 26, Krushchev sent a letter to Kennedy which took three hours to transmit. Its tone signaled a change from previous exchanges, with Khrushchev writing that he had been in two wars and “[I] knew that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.”18

Krushchev argued that the Soviet forces and weapons in Cuba were defensive and meant to prevent an American-led or supported invasion of Cuba.19 Krushchev proposed what would be the first part of the resolution, “[The President should] declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its forces and will not support any forces which might intend to carry out an invasion of Cuba.”20

While EXCOMM was considering this message, a second letter was received on October 27. Khrushchev added an additional demand that the U.S. remove nuclear missiles based in Turkey. Khrushchev compared the threat to the U.S. of missiles in Cuba as similar to threat of missiles in Turkey toward the Soviet Union. He wrote, “But how can we, the Soviet Union and our government, assess your actions which, in effect, mean that you have surrounded the Soviet Union with military bases, surrounded our allies with military bases, set up military bases literally around our country, and stationed your rocket weapons at them?”21 Khrushchev proposed now that the U.S. withdraw its missiles from Turkey, the Soviet Union would do the same for Cuba, and the Soviet Union would declare it would not violate the territorial integrity of Turkey while the U.S. made the same declaration for Cuba.22

The U.S. chose to respond only to the October 26 letter: “EXCOMM decided to respond to the former message and ignore the latter, agreeing to refrain from invading Cuba but not promising to remove the Jupiters from Turkey.”23 The terms of the resolution were thus set.24 Krushchev agreed to the American proposal on October 28.25 He did not mention the missiles in Turkey in his response.26


The crisis was resolved and it was clear that neither side wished to use force knowing the demand for escalating retaliation would be strong. The Kennedy Administration succeeded by not making a decision and allowing EXCOMM to find another option. The quarantine, a euphemism for blockade, drew a line on a map directly signaling to the Soviets that crossing that line and not submitting to inspection would be met with force. The decision to stop and turn the Soviet freighters was a signal for negotiation.

“The evidence to date indicates that all known offensive missile sites in Cuba have been dismantled. The missiles and their associated equipment have been loaded on Soviet ships. And our inspection at sea of these departing ships have confirmed that the number of missiles reported by the Soviet Union as having been brought into Cuba, which closely corresponded to our own information, has now been removed. The Soviet Government has stated that all nuclear weapons have been withdrawn from Cuba and no offensive weapons will be reintroduced.”–President Kennedy’s Statement on Cuba. November 20, 1962.

LtCol Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as a military professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.


1. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 48 (1969).

2. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 25 (1969).

3. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 54 (1969).

4. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 54 (1969).

5. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 163 (1969).

6. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 67 (1969).

7. Lois E. Fielding, Maritime Interception: Centerpiece of Economic Sanctions in the New World Order, 53 LA. L. REV. 1191, 1209-10 (1993). Thomas M. Franck, Proportionality in International Law, 4 L. & Ethics HUM. Rts. 229 (2010).

8. Lois E. Fielding, Maritime Interception: Centerpiece of Economic Sanctions in the New World Order, 53 LA. L. REV. 1191, 1209-10 (1993); Myres S. McDougal, “The Soviet-Cuban Quarantine and Self-Defense” The American Journal of International Law, Jul., 1963, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), pp. 597-604, 602.

9. Lois E. Fielding, Maritime Interception: Centerpiece of Economic Sanctions in the New World Order, 53 LA. L. REV. 1191, 1210 (1993);

10. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 121 (1969).

11. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 67 and 110 (1969).

12. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 67 (1969).

13. The later ship was named for President Kennedy’s older brother who was killed in World War II. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 82 (1969).

14. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 82 (1969).

15. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 82 (1969).

16. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 69-71 (1969).

17. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 207-08 (1996).

18. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 209 (1996).

19. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 209 (1996).

20. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 209 (1996).

21. “You are worried over Cuba. You say that it worries you because it lies at a distance of ninety miles across the sea from the shores of the United States. However, Turkey lies next to us. Do you believe that you have the right to demand security for your country, and the removal of such weapons that you qualify as offensive, while not recognizing this right for us?” Second Letter from Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy October 26, 1962. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 197-98 (1969).

22. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 197 (1969).

23. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis 197 (1969). President Kennedy sent his brother to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on the night of Saturday, October 27, 1962 to explain the U.S. would agree to pledge not to invade Cuba and to remove missiles from Turkey. Removing missiles from Turkey could not be made public as this might weaken NATO Allies confidence in American commitment to their defense. Fred Kaplan “The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War” 73-74 (2020).

24. Kennedy’s October 27 Letter to Krushchev: “As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals … are as follows: (1) You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision, and undertake, with suitable safeguards, to halt the further introduction of such weapons systems into Cuba. (2) We, on our part, would agree — upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations—to ensure the carrying out and continuation of those commitments (a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect and (b) to give assurances against the invasion of Cuba.” Robert Smith Thompson “The Missiles of October: The Declassified Story of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis” 335 (1992).

25. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 228 (1996).

26. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis 228 (1996).

Featured Image: A U.S. Navy Lockheed SP-2H Neptune (BuNo 140986) of patrol squadron VP-18 Flying Phantoms flying over a Soviet freighter. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Vice Admiral Vasili Arkhipov on Soviet Submarine Operations During the Cuban Missile Crisis

The following translation was conducted by Svetlana Savranskaya for the National Security Archive and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

Presentation at the Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 14, 1997, Moscow. Source: Kirov Naval Academy (National Naval Academy, Baku) website.

By Vice-Admiral Vasili Arkhipov

Before this conference, there has been a lot written, even though in a veiled form, about the Caribbean crisis. [It was published] in mass media, covered in conferences, symposia, roundtables with participation of representatives from all three sides. However, the first time we were informed about the actions of the submarines of the 69th brigade of the Northern Fleet in the operation codenamed “Kama,” it was in the “democratic” newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in the middle of 1995, under the odious title “In Case of Ambush—Use Nuclear Weapons.” It was written with the goal—as fashionable at the time as it was vile—to denigrate and defame prominent Soviet military and naval leaders, such as Grechko, Gorshkov, Vershinin, Fokin, Rassokho, and of course, to kick the CC CPSU. The article was part of the plan to destroy the Soviet Armed Forces.

Meanwhile, among the forces engaged in Operation Anadyr, the submarines were in the most critical conditions, closest to using their weapons. Their experience is very instructive and has been critically analyzed by the Navy. Here is [an account of] how they acted.

Submarines B-4, B-36, B-59 and B-130 were given the task to sail secretly from the base to the Cuban port of Mariel. The problem was that the speed of movement was set at twice the one that would allow the subs to travel secretly (in practice, to travel secretly, the diesel submarine could only be at the surface for about 1% of its overall time at sea). On the night of 01.10.1962, the submarines left the Kola Bay with the interval of 30 minutes and started their journey.

During the transit to the Bahamas, there were three most dangerous anti-submarine barriers in terms of the likelihood of being discovered: on the border between the Barents and the Norwegian seas between Medvezhii Island and Nordkap; between Iceland and Faroe and Scottish Islands; and between Newfoundland and the Azores.

During the transit, the weather and visibility generally were conducive to keeping the secrecy—stormy weather, low clouds, low visibility, snow squalls, rain.

The first two barriers exhibited ordinary levels of anti-submarine activity, and the subs crossed them undiscovered.

On the third barrier, which was least studied by our side in terms of its equipment and presence of anti-submarine forces, we observed an elevated level of activity of anti-submarine aircraft radiolocation stations working in a short-interval regime. During crossing of that barrier, on October 18, radio intelligence unit on B-59 intercepted a message from a French radio station informing some correspondents that Soviet submarines entered the Atlantic and were now traveling to the American shores. How they discovered the submarine (or submarines) is hard to say.

American sources say nothing about it either. However, one can say with high confidence that the submarine was not discovered with aircraft radar.

Meanwhile, the U.S. President announced the blockade of Cuba in a televised speech in the evening on October 22.

The U.S. Navy command sent additional ships and aircraft to the Cuban shores and to the Atlantic, and stated that any submarine discovered on approach to the Bahamas must surface to be identified. The commanders of U.S. ships were instructed to be ready to attack if the submarine refused to surface.

Next day, on October 23, submarine commanders were ordered by the Navy Central Command Headquarters to take positions in specified quadrants and conduct reconnaissance. The quadrants were set in several dozen miles [from one another] along their route. The same radiogram warned the commanders about possible U.S. provocative actions against Cuba and our transports. They were ordered to be on full alert and to continue to navigate in secret.

The determined quadrants were cut very poorly, because they did not allow the subs to preserve the secrecy of movement, most likely due to the quickly changing military and political situation around Cuba. They were drawn 300 to 350 miles across from the Bahamas maritime straights. In these waters [the United States] deployed experimental deep-water systems for long-distance submarine detection.

Soviet Navy map depicting Foxtrot sub locations near Cuba, late October 1962. Submarine B-59’s position is indicated by the bright red rectangle outside the map itself, at top center of the margin. Click to expand. Source: Digital image by Svetlana Savranskaya.

On October 24, the submarines arrived to the designated areas. And at the same time, as Norman Polmar of the U.S. Naval Institute wrote, Khrushchev stated to the U.S. representative in Moscow, in response to Kennedy’s announcement, that if U.S. ships started searching Soviet merchant ships on the high seas, it would be considered piracy and that he would give orders to the Soviet submarines to destroy U.S. ships. The tactical situation around the submarines started to deteriorate rapidly. The activity of ship-borne and shore-based anti-submarine aviation picked up sharply, and then groups of aircraft-carrier-based search-and-attack groups, ASW, entered the areas of submarine deployment: [the group] led by aircraft carrier “Essex”—to the sub B-130 area; led by ASW aircraft carrier “Randolph”—to sub B-59 area; and helicopter-carrier “Tetis-Bay” with escort ships—to sub B-36 area of deployment.

All of them were searching for submarines with all means available to them: radio location stations, multi-frequency sonars, Julie sonobuoys, towed sono-locators, radio hydroacoustic buoys, sonars and so on; and in addition [used] explosions of grenades as a signal to come to the surface. All this banged and echoed in the sections of the submarines for several days, and had a depressing effect on the personnel. In addition, the living conditions on the submarines deteriorated substantially due to the impossibility to ventilate the compartments.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Randolph (CVS-15) in 1963. The crew displays two Battle Efficiency “E” awards, one awarded to the best anti-submarine carrier, and one the sixth consecutive Efficiency Award presented to the Engineering Department. On deck are aircraft of Carrier Anti-Submarine Air Group 58 (CVSG-58). (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The temperature inside the compartments, due to the high temperature of the sea water of +30-32 C, the work of the regeneration systems, the diesel engines, accumulator batteries and [other] mechanisms, was +50 C; in the diesel compartments and hydroacoustic cabins it reached +60-65 C. On top of that, high humidity, elevated pressure, vapors of fuel, oil, electrolyte, levels of CO2 several times exceeding the norm (1.2%), and lack of drinking water—all this created difficult conditions for the personnel. The submarine mechanisms could not endure the conditions that the men could still bear. The diesels, plugs [pads] for the outboard flaps and valves, water coolers, packing sealants for the shaft lines, broke most often, leading to the seepage of water into compartments and diminishing the depths to which submarines could submerge. Repairing the damage demanded great efforts and perseverance on the part of the personnel. Many sailors, especially engine personnel, were fainting. But then, after some rest and a chance to breathe, they returned to work or reported to watch duty.

In order to avoid giving the audience (or readers) an impression of what kind of battle ships those were, and how they could fight, I have to tell you that failures of equipment were not a rare occurrence and not limited to our country’s ships. For instance, according to the official data, in the period of 1960-1968, the U.S. Navy suffered 35 accidents and catastrophes, not even counting breakdowns (of equipment). Even during the crisis, the ASW aircraft carrier “Randolph” only stayed in the area for several hours and then sent a radio signal “The second main boiler is out of order. I am returning to the base.”

These submarines of the new project, built in 1959-1961, were the best in the world in terms of their combat and technological capabilities. They were armed with 22 torpedos. Their sailing range was up to 26,000 miles; they could sail autonomously for three months and dive to the depth of 300 meters. However, they were still not adapted for sailing in very hot climate, in the conditions of high salinity of water. Their mechanisms were still not fully broken in, tested and lapped. Later, these problems were fixed, and soon after our journey, submarines of this project became the main ships of our Navy on combat duty. And when I am speaking about malfunctions on these submarines, it is only because I want to emphasize the difficult conditions of sailing, under which, for several reasons, it was impossible to fix all the problems, and so they accumulated.

October 28-29, 1962 – Soviet submarine B-59, forced to the surface by U.S. Naval forces in the Caribbean near Cuba. (Photo via U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Record Group 428, Item 428-N-711200)

The submarines had to charge their accumulator batteries with many interruptions as they were trying to avoid being discovered by the anti-submarine forces.

The U.S. Navy had an existing tactical protocol against diesel submarines called “hunt to exhaustion,” analogous to the British tactics of fighting against the German submarine fleet during World War II along the Biscay ASW barrier called “war of attrition.” In that case, these tactics were justified and had led to the logical conclusion.

On the night of October 25, U.S. destroyers detected submarine B-130, after which, according to all the American documents, all other ASW forces were directed at it, and the pursuit started. After the accumulator battery got discharged, the submarine came to the surface in the ASW area patrolled by the aircraft carrier “Essex.” As it became known from the memoirs of John Kennedy’s brother Robert Kennedy, the President was informed about the discovery of the submarine on the morning of October 27. This made everybody deeply anxious. He writes: “I think these minutes were the time of gravest concern for the President.” He said, “ Isn’t there some way we can avoid having our first exchange with a Russian submarine— almost anything but that?” But right after that a message came that the Soviet ships stopped. This stage of crisis was over.

However, after this incident, the pursuit [of the submarines] was intensified. And approximately in the same circumstances, submarines B-36 and B-59 were detected, and after three days of pursuit, they had to come to the surface.

I would like to focus on the actions of B-59 as the most typical of them.

Upon surfacing, it discovered [the following]: an aircraft carrier, nine destroyers, four airplanes of Neptune type, three of Trekker, encircled by three concentric circles of coast guard forces. This submarine experienced the entire range of provocative activities of the U.S. forces. Overflights by planes just 20-30 meters above the submarine’s conning tower, use of powerful searchlights, fire from automatic cannons (over 300 shells), dropping depth charges, cutting in front of the submarine by destroyers at a dangerously [small] distance, targeting guns at the submarine, yelling from loudspeakers to stop engines, etc.

We would not need to talk about this except for one crucial question: Why did the submarine not use its weapons?

The battle instructions for the commander state [in] point 8: “during the sea passage, weapons should be in a battle-ready state. Use of conventional weapons— upon the order from the Navy Commander-in-Chief, or in case of an armed attack at the submarine.” Therefore, to use or not to use the weapons depended on how you read the situation: is the fire from the aircraft cannon an armed attack or not? At that time, the events could have developed in the following way: after the first salvo from an aircraft cannon, the commander could have instinctively, without contemplation ordered an “emergency dive”; then after submerging, the question whether the plane was shooting at the submarine or around it would not have come up in anybody’s head. That is war.

But the plane, flying over the conning tower, 1 to 3 seconds before the start of fire turned on powerful searchlights and blinded the people on the bridge so that their eyes hurt. It was a shock. And the commander physically could not give any orders, could not even understand what was happening. And when he blinked and blinked his eyes and could see again, it became clear that the plane was firing past and along the boat. And the subsequent similar actions (there were 12 overflights altogether) were not as worrisome any longer.

To explain the behavior of the commanders, one has to understand the context in which they had to make their decisions. In practice, the submarines had unreliable communications with the Central Command Headquarters. They learned about the developments around Cuba from short intermittent radio intercepts of the U.S. public broadcasting stations. From that information, they made a conclusion that the situation was tense; however, that it was on the verge of war, they only learned after their return to the base, when member of the Military Council of the Northern Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sizov told them during the meeting with the submariners of the 69th submarine brigade: “We did not even expect you to come back alive.”


1. This was the first encounter between Soviet submarines and the entire complex of the U.S. anti-submarine warfare forces and equipment; in the area, which was extremely unfavorable for our submarines and very favorable for U.S. anti-submarine forces. This encounter led to a reassessment of the U.S. anti-submarine forces both by the Soviet Navy and in the United States. Detection of the submarines became possible as a result of massive concentration of all anti-submarine forces and efforts, which is only possible to sustain for a short period of time. That is understood in the United States as well. This [conclusion] is supported by the fact that both B- 36 and B-59, after completing the charging of their accumulator batteries, were able to get away from their pursuers with relative ease, and submarine B-4, which was spotted by the ASW aviation, after charging its battery was able to successfully escape from the search area.

2. The command of the United States and NATO made certain conclusions from the actions of ASW against the submarines of the 69th brigade, and rapidly increased the number of military exercises of anti-submarine forces. Thus, just in September-October of the following year [1963] they held seven comprehensive military exercises, and the number was increased in the subsequent years.

3. Conclusions and suggestions on the basis of the submarine operations were reported to the command of the 4th submarine squadron and to the Northern Fleet after the submarines’ return to the base. There is no need to repeat them now, because that was the last encounter when the Soviet leadership and the Armed Forces of the USSR stood up to defend its interests as equals with the United States.

4. The journey of the submariners of the 69th brigade deserves appreciation and admiration of the courage, perseverance and patriotism of sailors, non- commissioned staff and officers in extreme conditions of their sail.

Thank you for your attention

Former Chief of Staff of the 69th submarine brigade
Vice-Admiral, Retired,
V. Arkhipov.

Featured Image: Photograph of Soviet submarine B-59 close-up with Soviet crew visible, taken by U.S. Navy photographers, circa 28-29 October, 1962 Source: U.S. National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Record Group 428, Item 428-N-711201

What Dostoyevsky Taught Me About a Navy Technologist’s Predictions

By Bill Bray

A few years ago, when I was serving as a senior Navy fellow, a technologist on the team predicted that sailors soon could be wired, fitbit-style, to such an exquisite degree that everything about them, from moods to future bad choices, could be known, tracked, logged, and used. As he explained, this technology would be used for everything from emergency intervention to evaluation writing. In fact, the evaluations would practically write themselves. He was young and, to my knowledge, had never led anyone, yet presented with an almost breathless certainty.

Those of us who had spent years in the fleet could be forgiven for being skeptical, or even surprised, since we may think we know people—who they are, what makes them tick, or why they do the things they do. As much as I was surprised by the young technologist’s easy confidence, as he spoke I found myself recalling an experience I had as a young officer. With more than three years on board my first ship, I thought I knew the sailors I led and worked with very well. Know your people was a leadership mantra even back then, although it had yet to be taken as far as the young technologist’s predictions. What I could not predict was that early one morning, one of my sailors would wake up at his off-base San Diego apartment, retrieve his legally owned handgun, and shoot and kill his two roommates while they slept.

When first visited in jail, he said very little beyond that he felt he had the right to do what he did. While a bit aloof and arrogant, he was otherwise quiet and mild-mannered and had never been in trouble. A few days after the murders, I wondered to my captain how such an unassuming young sailor could do something so horrible. He said, perhaps now in contradiction to the technologist with whom I would later work, “you will never know.”

One who wrestled with a mid-19th-century version of the technologist’s optimism was the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Naturalism was then the rage (Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859). There was great confidence that man could be understood (entirely) through observation and experimentation (the scientific method). For example, one of Dostoyevsky’s contemporaries, Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov, published The Reflexes of the Brain (1863) based on his research with frogs (his main claim was that all human behavior could be explained as reflexive action). Dostoyevsky had seen too much in life by then to believe it. He thought it not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense. Its implications for political and social life were terrifying.

I first read Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s first novel of his major literary period, a few months after leaving my first ship. As I read it and ventured into Dostoyevsky’s world for the first time, the sailor and his fate were front of mind. With crime, the why is always more difficult to know, and more fascinating to contemplate, than the what. Military justice deals primarily with the crime itself, with the important goals of deterring criminal activity and maintaining good order and discipline. But at a grander level Dostoyevsky was not writing about crime and the criminal. Through a dramatic narrative, he demonstrates how human intentions, motivation, subjective experience, and behavior are not knowable, let alone explainable, solely through physical observation. They cannot be categorized into “data sets,” to borrow a more contemporary term. Dostoyevsky helped me be skeptical of, if not the whole human resources field, at least the faith that technology can ever make human performance and behavior predictable.

Ideas were not inconsequential for Dostoyevsky. Crime is often a phenomenon that begins with an idea. Examining how humans can be swept up by an idea and rationalize crime is a recurring theme—one could say an obsession—for Dostoyevsky throughout his major literary period beginning with Crime and Punishment (1866). He was a gifted dramatist, so much so that in Crime and Punishment, while there is no question of the student Raskolnikov’s guilt or that he will not escape earthly justice, the reader almost hangs on every paragraph, searching for answers to the why of the crime—and to eternal questions, such as can murder ever be justified, and for what? Crime and Punishment might be the greatest whydoneit ever written.

The Mystery of Man

Hemingway famously wrote in Green Hills of Africa that “Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia. Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.” Indeed, Konstantin Mochulsky, one of the greatest Dostoyevsky biographers, writes in the introduction to Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work, “The life and work of Dostoyevsky are inseparable. . . Dostoyevsky was always drawn to confession as an artistic form. His works unfold before us as one vast confession, as the integral revelation of his universal spirit.”1

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). (Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born 30 October 1821. His father, Mikhail Andreyevich, was a doctor, and by most accounts could be stern and moody. After Dostoyevsky’s mother, Marya Fyodorovna, died in 1837 of tuberculosis, father Mikhail retired to his country estate, where his drinking and treatment of serfs worsened. In 1839, while Dostoyevsky was enrolled in the Nikolayev School of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg, the serfs allegedly beat his father to death following one particularly abusive episode (evidence uncovered in the 1970s casts some doubt on this story).2

Dostoyevsky did not care much for engineering. He passed into the School of Engineering more interested in reading writers such as Schiller, Hoffman, Balzac, and Pushkin than in studying mathematics. In The Diary of a Writer (a series of essays he wrote in the 1870s), Dostoyevsky claimed that as soon as they arrived in St. Petersburg in May 1837, he and his brother Mikhail made a visit to the spot where Pushkin died (Pushkin was killed in a duel with his brother-in-law in February of that year).3 By 1839 he knew for certain his calling. That year he wrote Mikhail:

To study the meaning of man and of life—I am making sufficient progress here. I have faith in myself. Man is a mystery. One must solve it. If you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery because I want to be a man.4

By the mid-1840s, Dostoyevsky was becoming known in St. Petersburg literary circles. He published his first book, the novella Poor Folk, in January 1846. Shortly thereafter, he requested release from military service. He then published the The Double in late January. In the next two years, he associated himself with at least two political-literary groups.

The 1840s were heady political times in Europe, and affiliating with such groups was risky in imperialist Russia. One group was founded by Mikhail Petrashevsky, long a proponent of social and civil reform in Russia. In 1848, revolution swept western Europe and the Tsar Nicholas I became more fearful of losing his grip on power. In April 1849, members of the Petrashevsky circle, including Dostoyevsky and his brothers Andrey and Mikhail, were arrested and jailed in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg (Dostoyevsky’s brothers were released within two months for a lack of evidence). A military court found Dostoyevsky guilty in November and recommended he be executed. However, the Tsar agreed to commute the sentence, but only after the writer endured a mock execution on 22 December at Semenovsky Square. The Tsar’s messenger arrived just in time to announce the commutation—“Nicholas carefully orchestrated the scenario on this occasion to produce the maximum impact on the unsuspecting victims of his regal solicitude.”5

Dostoyevsky spent four years of hard labor in a prison camp in Omsk, followed by five years of military service. One can scarcely imagine how ghastly life in a Siberian prison camp was in the 1850s. Dostoyevsky’s first letters to his brother on release in 1854 (he was unable to correspond while in prison with one exception) and his later account in Notes from the House of the Dead (1861) vividly describe a horrifying penal existence.

Yet the “unspeakable, interminable suffering” was the turning point in the writer’s spiritual development.”6 In many letters Dostoyevsky describes his time in prison as one of introspection and “regeneration.” Dostoyevsky could never reconcile his religious faith with the radical rationalism so prevalent in the mid-1800s. “The ‘magic of extremes’ which had shaken Dostoyevsky’s personal life made him follow man into the darkest corridors of his mind, where nothing remains hidden and where the only way out is the flight into God’s open arms.”7

When he returned to St. Petersburg in 1859, he found the intellectual environment brimming with this radical rationalism. The “vibrational stew” he encountered, according to James Parker, included “nihilism, egoism, materialism. . . The human is being reconceived.” Reason is pitted against faith, against the irrational. What is more truthful? What is more authentic? What is man capable of if he believes only in his capacity to reason? From where comes the moral law in a world where man is the only lawgiver? These questions plagued Dostoyevsky. As Mochulsky put it: “And thus began the struggle between faith and reason in the writer’s consciousness, thus arose the fundamental problem of his philosophy.”8

From Mystery to War

What I should have first read, before Crime and Punishment, is Notes from Underground, published in 1864 in the January and April issues of Epoch, the second magazine Dostoyevsky ran with Mikhail (the first, Vremya [Time] was closed by the censors the year prior).

At just 125 pages, Notes from Underground is the philosophical premise of the author’s great works. In it, we find a thundering cry from the wilderness, an author whose “regeneration of convictions” and long years observing man’s capacity for cruelty and depravity coalesced into a fiery conviction to save humanity from destroying itself. In today’s parlance, Dostoyevsky was a culture warrior—a reactionary who saw the state of man in the mid-nineteenth century as corrupt and sick, an outcome of his almost breathless arrogance before nature and God. Society was deep in an existential crisis. Its foundations were beginning to crumble. Few seemed to recognize the coming apocalypse.

Dostoyevsky was at war with the prevailing intellectual current of his time, one that placed humanity’s fate squarely in the hopes of a scientific positivism that held that understanding man’s character, nature, and behaviors can be derived through sensory experience (observation), experimentation, and reason. Change man’s environment for the better through science, and man’s nature will change for the better.

One of Dostoyevsky’s antagonists was the socialist Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, who in 1863 published the utopian novel What Is to Be Done? No less than V.I. Lenin would point to Chernyshevsky’s novel as a pivotal influence. Richard Pevear, in the forward to the translation of Notes from Underground he and his wife Larissa Volokhonsky published in 1993, explains that Dostoyevsky initially planned to write a review of What Is to Be Done? in Epoch, but decided that literary critique alone would be inadequate. It required the force of an artistic response, consistent with Dostoyevsky’s conviction that only through art can the human condition be understood in a way that could expose the pretensions and falsehoods of a thinker such as Chernyshevsky. Pevear notes:

[Chernyshevsky’s hero] is the voice of the healthy rational egoist, the ingenuous man of action. Dostoyevsky takes up the challenge. Though Chernyshevsky is not mentioned by name in Notes from Underground, his theories, and in particular his novel, are the most immediate target of the underground man’s diatribes and of Dostoyevsky’s subtler, more penetrating parody.9

Rational egoism was Dostoyevsky’s bête noir. He knew where this unquestioned belief in science to answer all questions was heading, and it was not pretty. His tortured, mysterious characters can be seen as irrationality resisting science’s dogmatic adherents. His underground man mocks Chernyshevky:

Oh, tell me, who first announced, who was the first to proclaim that man does dirty only because he doesn’t know his real interests; and that were he to be enlightened, were his eyes to be opened to his real, normal interests, man would immediately stop doing dirty, would immediately become good and noble, because, being enlightened and understanding his real profit, he would see his real profit precisely in the good, and it’s common knowledge that no man can knowingly act against his own profit … Profit! What is profit? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect exactitude precisely what man’s profit consists in? And what if it so happens that on occasion man’s profit not only may but precisely must consist in sometimes wishing what is bad for himself, and not what is profitable? And if so, if there can be such a case, then the whole rule goes up in smoke.10

Of course, Dostoyevsky notes, man acts against his own self-interest all the time. This is natural, if incomprehensible, behavior. Man is at once rational and irrational. The observation/experimental method had no answer for this (modern neuroscience has not provided an answer either).

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment is the epic, full-bodied drama that poured out of Dostoyevsky in a frenzy of creative activity following the 1864 deaths of his first wife and his brother Mikhail, and was inspired, in part, from his reading about the French murder trial of the sociopath Pierre-Francois Lacenaire. In July 1865, he was in Wiesbaden on his third trip abroad. He had gambled away what savings he had and was asking acquaintances, including the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, to loan him money. At some point that summer he abandoned work on The Drunks (the story of the Marmeladov family was ultimately incorporated into Crime and Punishment) and began work on what he had indicated to Mikhail as early as 1859 would be a “confession” novel, one he had first thought of while in prison when “lying on a bed of wooden planks, in an oppressing moment of melancholy and self-dissolution.”11

In September, Dostoyevsky wrote a letter to the prominent editor Mikhail Katkov in which he pitched the novel as a “psychological account of a crime,” going into great detail about how most of the dramatic action would not be about the crime itself, but how the protagonist navigates the aftermath of the crime morally and spiritually.12 He had finished a draft of the novel by late November when back in St. Petersburg, but was not happy with the outcome, and began rewriting it. The first part of what became a six-part novel was published in January 1866 in The Russian Messenger. Parts two and three followed in the ensuing months, and the entire novel was published by the end of the year.

Dostoyevsky’s characters are strange, outlandish, and even grotesque. In Crime and Punishment, we are not on lavish estates, in drawing rooms, or at grand balls—we are in the gutter, at the edge of civilized society, in a gloomy atmosphere of torment, sickness, and despair. Many characters are given to exaggerated emotional outbursts and behaviors. As William Hubben wrote, “All of Dostoyevsky’s stories belong to the literature of extreme situations. An ominous restlessness broods over the men and women in his novels. Frequently their reaction to seemingly small incidents is excessive, and events take a most unexpected turn.”13 

Dostoyevsky is often accused of being an overbearing writer who preached that the path to salvation was through hardship and suffering. In Russian, this outlook is known as dostoyevshchina, or as Y. Karyakin explains, “a masochistic wallowing in suffering, a pathological acceptance of the ugly in the world … a sick conscience which derives comfort from the belief that there can be no easy conscience…”14

Dostoyevsky’s protagonist Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is perhaps an embodiment of dostoyevshchina—at once intelligent and aloof, easily irritable, with a disdain for people in general. He is tormented, suffering from some inner turmoil. He is “functionally insane,” according to Parker. But even when we learn he intends to commit cold-blooded murder, he is not wholly unlikeable. He has genuine empathy—for the Marmeladovs, for example, especially the oldest daughter, the prostitute Sonya—and a deep love for his mother and sister, one that is ostensibly the motive for the crime. He has dropped out of school and needs money to take care of his mother (Pulkheria Alexandrovna) and liberate his sister (Avdotya Romanovna, or Dunya) from marrying the corrupt businessman Pyotr Luzhin, which he believes she is only doing to help him return to school.

At the novel’s outset, Raskolnikov is already in the throes of crisis. Although his struggle is not unique, it is universal. He is Dostoyevsky’s example of the new idealists who suffer an “infirmity of notions, having come under the influence of some of those strange, ‘incomplete’ ideas which go floating about in the air…”15 The only way out of his predicament is to murder the old money lender Alonya Ivanovna, a despicable, vile woman he believes the world will be better off without. He commits a gruesome ax murder and, when walked in on by Alonya’s younger sister Lizaveta, he kills her too.

The novel’s remaining five parts deal with Raskolnikov’s anguish and looming fate. The police investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, suspects Raskolnikov not only has committed the crime, but that his conscience would eventually get the better of him and lead to a confession. What primarily holds readers’ interest is that they want to know what Petrovich wants to know—why did he do it.

An illustration to Crime and Punishment by Nikolay Karazin, showing the moment Raskolnikov is forced to kill the pawnbroker’s sister to defend himself from capture. (Wikimedia Commons)

The answer flows from Raskolnikov’s own philosophical quest. Can an evil act be justified if it produces good consequences? Are some people, by virtue of their greatness, permitted to transgress the moral law that bounds everyone else? He thought so, and the act was meant to prove it. According to Karyakin, “Dostoyevsky’s hero is a man obsessed by an idea, a man in whom Dostoyevsky looks for and finds a human being wounded by an idea, killed by an idea or resurrected by it.”16

Mochulsky claims that Crime and Punishment would have been more accurately titled Crime and Expiation: “Raskolnikov is not only the compositional, but the spiritual center of the novel … the tragedy springs up in his soul and the external action only serves to reveal his moral conflicts.”17 Raskolnikov tries to put himself above the moral law. But he cannot, just as his actions cannot be explained as reflexes in his brain.

A Lesson on Mystery and Fantastical Predictions

Why did my sailor commit a double homicide? Was he perhaps driven by something more than passion and rage at a perceived slight? Was his crime an act against his own self-interest? An illustration of man’s simultaneously rational and irrational mind in action? Much to that young, optimistic technologist’s dismay, we will likely never know. Human behavior is complex and irreducible to data and formulas, something human resources professionals and data scientists rarely want to hear. If anything, Dostoyevsky’s work and life are a testament to the inherent mystery of human behavior, the irreducible complexity of actually knowing someone well.

Recent progress in artificial intelligence has spawned, again, some fantastical predictions of data-driven talent management processes that will categorize subordinates (workers) to such a fine degree that near-total behavioral predictability will be possible. Human performance data will be continuously collected in the workplace, categorized and collated, populating digital profiles and giving future leaders a “game-changing” technological toolset to know their people. But before young leaders believe that will happen, they should read Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky may give them cause for skepticism. And that could be a good thing.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.


1. Kostantin Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), xix.
2. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 85–88.
3. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
4. Mochulsky, 17.
5. Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, 51.
6. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
7. William Hubben, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka: Four Prophets of Our Destiny (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1952), 68.
 8. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
9. Richard Pevear, Forward to Notes from Underground (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), xiii-xiv.
10. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 20–21.
11. Mochulsky, 271.
12. Mochulsky, 272.
13. Hubben, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka, 64.
14. Karyakin, Re-reading Dostoyevsky (Moscow: Novosti Press, 1971), 7.
15. Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Mikhail Katkov, as quoted in Mochulsky, 272.
16. Karyakin, Re-reading Dostoyevsky, 124.
17. Mochulsky, 299.

Featured Image: “Illuminations in St. Petersburg,” by Fedor Aleksandrovich Vasiliev/Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow Russia,/ Bridgeman Images.

Defeated in Peacetime: The Fall of British Singapore, 1942

By Jason Lancaster

“You go to war with the Army you have, not the army you want.” – U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, December 2004

Much like Secretary Rumsfeld’s comments on fighting with the army you have, a navy required in crisis cannot be conjured overnight from thin air, good wishes, and steel. An effective navy requires money to build and maintain, time for construction, and foresight to understand the nature of the next naval war. This is a lesson Britain learned the hard way during World War II, and one that all nations with maritime boundaries should head. War weariness and debt from World War I caused defense cuts. Defense cuts reduced the size of the fleet. No longer would Britain maintain a fleet larger than the next two navies in size.

In the wake of World War I, people hoped the League of Nations could peacefully resolve international disputes. The German High Seas Fleet was seized by the Allies and sank at Scapa Flow. War weary British citizens expected defense cuts. In an effort to reduce the strategic risk of naval cuts, nations came together to agree to limitations on fleet size and armaments at the Washington and London Naval Conferences. Faulty strategic assumptions about friends, enemies, and their naval capabilities meant that Britain’s fleet was too small for imperial defense when called upon.

The Japanese attacked Malaya December 8, 1941, and by February 15, 1942 had captured Malaya and Singapore. In just 55 days, Japanese Infantry marched 1,100 Kilometers, established air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), sank a modern battleship and battle cruiser, and captured 85,000 British and Imperial soldiers.1 February 15, 1942 was a black day for the British Empire, the “impregnable” fortress of Singapore surrendered to the Japanese after less than a week under siege. Reputed as the Gibraltar of the Far East, Singapore’s defenses rested primarily on propaganda hype. Singapore was not just another catastrophe in a string of early war catastrophes, but a catastrophe caused by failed assumptions in strategic thought, naval procurement, and operational planning.

The Naval Treaties and the Two-Power Standard

The Royal Navy had operated on a two-power standard since the 19th century. The two-power standard meant that Britain would maintain more capital ships than the next two largest navies in the world. Pacifism and anti-war sentiment in the wake of World War I meant the British government was reluctant to spend the money necessary to maintain the two-power standard navy. Moreover, the next two naval powers were Japan and the United States; Japan was an ally until the 1923 Washington Naval Treaty, and the Admiralty did not consider the United States a threatening power.

Disarmament was the rule of the day. The London and Washington Naval Treaties limited the sizes of the world’s navies. The Washington Naval Conference set a ten year 5:5:3 ratio for battleships between Britain, the United States, and Japan. Battleship tonnage was limited to 35,000 tons per ship.2 Heavy cruiser tonnage was limited to 10,000 tons; however, there was no limit to the number of heavy cruisers in the Washington Naval Treaty. The London Naval Conference added limits on heavy cruiser numbers. As a pre-condition to sign the Washington Naval Treaty, the United States made Britain choose an ally, the United States or Japan. Great Britain chose the United States, offending Japan and forcing the British to plan for war against Japan. 

With great budgetary finesse and lack of strategic foresight, Great Britain replaced the two-power standard navy with a one-power standard navy. This change caused great debate in the Britain itself as well as in the Colonies. Australian Army Colonel John Lavarack suggested Japan would wait until Britain was occupied elsewhere and that “the dispatch of the British battle fleet to the Far East for the protection of Imperial (and Australian) interests cannot be counted upon with sufficient certainty.”3 Colonel Lavarack’s statements argued for Australian Army budget increases during the inter-war years.

Meanwhile in Britain, Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond stated that the odds of Britain having to fight a two-ocean war were, “a hypothetical situation of improbably nature,” and, “I can imagine no worse way of stampeding a government into a waste of money.”4 However, in 1942, he blamed the loss of Singapore on, “the illusion that a two-hemisphere empire could be defended by a one-hemisphere navy.”5

The Singapore Strategy

Great Britain lacked the finances and political will to retain the number of ships required to defend Great Britain, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. In order to defend the British Empire’s far eastern colonies, the Admiralty devised the Singapore Strategy. This plan was continually revised until the war broke out. Controversy surrounds what the Singapore Strategy actually called for. In its simplest form, the Singapore Strategy was divided into three phases:

Phase I: Period before relief, the time Singapore and Malaysia would be vulnerable to an attack or siege 

The length of time Singapore was expected to hold out expanded from initially 75 days in the 1920s to 180 days in the late 1930s.

Phase II: Reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI)

Singapore’s dockyards and dry dock were built with supporting the fleet when it arrived to defend Singapore. This phase would enable the fleet to repair and resupply before action.

Phase III: Action, Royal Navy’s advance to isolate Japan6

The misperception is that there was only one plan for a purely naval war against Japan. In reality, these phases applied to multiple offensive and defensive plans that evolved as the Royal Navy contracted and slowly expanded.

The offensive plans called for the bulk of the Royal Navy to be forward deployed to the Far East during a crisis. These plans had two key assumptions. Assumption 1: there would be time to deploy the fleet from Europe. Assumption 2: no European crisis would prevent deploying the fleet. Singapore provided all the major basing facilities for the fleet required, including repair facilities, armories, machine shops, fuel depots, and morale infrastructure such as cinemas and mess halls.

The British battleship HMS NELSON off Spithead for Fleet Review, 1937. Anchored in the background are two Queen Elizabeth Class battleships and two cruisers of the London Class.

From Singapore, the fleet could operate from a forward base closer to the combat zone. Many ports were considered as a forward base. Within the empire, Hong Kong and northern Borneo were considered as potential forward bases. In addition to British ports, Britain considered the American port of Manila and French Camrahn Bay as alternate forward bases.

From the forward base, the fleet would force a major fleet action with the Japanese by conducting an island hopping campaign, seizing bases closer and closer to the Japanese home islands. Even an offensive plan placed great emphasis on the British ability to win a drawn out war of attrition with the Japanese. There was an assumption that Britain would win through economic warfare. Without British exports of rubber, tin, manganese, and oil, Japanese industry would lose efficiency and supplies. British diplomacy would also attempt to further isolate Japan by reducing American and Dutch trade.

This offensive plan required European peace. If European war loomed, the fleet would remain in Europe and offensive plans were moot. Debates over offensive and defensive plans and war games were frequent. With rising European tensions, British naval planners looked for ways to defend the Far East without weakening home waters. A guerre de course plan was also developed, and war games led to the development of the 1939 “flying squadron” theory. Admiral Reginald Drax proposed “a flying squadron composed of two fast battleships, two aircraft carriers, four large cruisers, and nine large destroyers” in the Far East to protect British maritime interests. This squadron would “be mobile enough to hunt down Japanese raiding forces of inferior size… and make the Japanese think twice before venturing too far south.” The expectation was to employ this fleet as a maritime commando, striking Japanese sea lines of communication.7

Admiral Drax’s proposal was a variation of the defensive strategy, which included sending four or five capital ships to Singapore to defend British maritime interests, while the bulk of the Royal Navy dealt with the Italian and German threats in Europe. Despite the originality of the Flying Squadron plan, the idea of a British fleet in being was considered too undignified a path for the Royal Navy. Without favor, all traces of the plan were removed from the War Memorandum. Its recommendation for a larger force that included aircraft carriers notwithstanding, many accused the Drax Plan as the seed of destruction for Force Z.

In 1939, Britain found itself in a situation that previously had been thought impossible. Rather than one opponent, Britain now faced three: Germany, Italy, and Japan. Throughout the 1930s, Germany re-armed, whilst Britain remained limited by the Washington and London Naval Treaties.

As in World War I, the British expected French support in the Mediterranean. Britain expected that a combined Anglo-French force would rapidly destroy the Italian fleet and enable British reinforcements from Europe to the Far East. France’s rapid collapse eliminated the French fleet and opened French ports to the German fleet. Britain’s assumption of shared responsibility in the Mediterranean had been obliterated.

The Singapore Strategy’s Phase I assumed Singapore would hold out, initially for 75 days, this was raised to 90 days by the early 1930s, and by 1939, it had been increased to 180 days. The gradual increase in time was a reflection of the government in London’s changing priorities from the defense of the empire to the defense of Great Britain.

The offensive Singapore Strategy was similar to the American War Plan Orange, but smaller in scope. The British plan did not set out to achieve as much as the American plan. In 1928, the American plan initially expected 36,000 troops; and for the second year of a war, the United States expected over 400,000 soldiers and marines in the Pacific.8 Britain would have embarked on a similar campaign as the American island hopping campaign, if she would have had the same resources as America. However, British resources in the 1930s were too constrained for such ambition.

From 1919 until 1941, Britain’s “Singapore Strategy” fluctuated in scale as the resources to support the plan shifted. Very aggressive plans in the early 1920s shifted to incredibly defensive in the late 1930s. The plan reflected British defense priorities in a world rife with danger and more threats than resources.

Budget Maneuvers

The British Government and Press spoke of fortress Singapore, and the British public believed them. Eventually, the government believed their own hype. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was intimately involved in the decisions that hobbled Singapore and the Royal Navy. Churchill should have understood the reality: the propagandized and spirited defense was more of a pathetic whimper. As Singapore was coming under the gun, Churchill realized the error, and said:

“I ought to have known, and I ought to have asked about this matter, amid the thousands of questions I put, was that the possibility of Singapore having no landward defenses no more entered my mind than that of a battleship being launched without a bottom.”9

In 1925, Admiral Beatty, Winston Churchill, and Austen Chamberlain debated over fleet size and military construction projects at the new Singapore naval base. Admiral Beatty argued, “Britain vis-à-vis Japan in 1925 was worse off than vis-à-vis Germany in 1914 and Japan could deal a naval blow which they were absolutely powerless to prevent.” Admiral Beatty wanted naval facilities and the new dry dock in the Far East rapidly constructed. There were no suitable facilities to support the fleet east of Gibraltar. Chamberlain responded to the Royal Navy’s sense of urgency by declaring, “War in the Far East a remote prospect.” He could not conceive Japan “single-handedly taking on the British Empire, unless Japan was aided by some new European grouping.”10

In his quest for thrift, Churchill eliminated a garrison in Johore, Malaya, across from Singapore Naval Base. Singapore army commanders had stated that an “attack from that direction was unlikely because of terrain.” British officers did not believe an army could advance through Malaya, and that Singapore only needed defenses from the sea. Admiral Beatty argued that 15” Inch artillery pieces would “provide a complete deterrent and make Singapore absolutely safe.”11

When Churchill became Prime Minister, the improbable event that Chamberlain had described in the 1920s was in progress. Winston Churchill had many difficult decisions to make. Britain had to prioritize its own defense over the empire’s defense. Churchill knew that some places would come under the gun. Churchill believed the cost of Singapore naval base military construction meant Singapore should be the Gibraltar of the Far East and capable to withstand a siege of 180 days before relief.

Force Z and the Fall of Singapore

When France fell in 1940, the Singapore Strategy fell with it. Instead of steel hulls and shells, bluffs and the hope of US intervention would defend the Far East . Churchill’s priorities placed the defense of the Far Eastern colonies below the home islands and the Mediterranean.

The Far East was considered a third-string front and received equipment and untrained units accordingly. In Britain, the Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire defeated the Luftwaffe over Britain. In Singapore, the majority of fighter squadrons flew the obsolete Bristol Buffalo against the Mitsubishi Zero. The troops and officers sent to reinforce the garrison in Singapore and Malaya were, according to Churchill, “an inferior troop of military and naval men.” Most of the Imperial Troops had been in the army for less than 90 days, and some of the Australians had enlisted only two weeks prior. Several Indian Brigades bound for training in Egypt were diverted en route to Singapore.12

The Singapore Strategy required the fleet. When the crisis came, the fleet was not available. Britain prioritized defending the Atlantic convoy routes, the Mediterranean, and the home islands. Only two capital ships could be spared to defend Singapore. The modern battleship HMS Prince of Wales, battle cruiser HMS Repulse, and three destroyers were sent to defend Singapore. Churchill requested an aircraft carrier as well, but none were available. This small fleet could not hope to defend Singapore against a concerted Japanese onslaught.

On December 8th, Force Z sailed from Singapore to search for the Japanese amphibious task force. The Royal Air Force was supposed to provide air cover, but poor weather and lack of inter-service coordination prevented air support for Force Z. Without air support, Force Z was vulnerable to Japanese air attack. Japanese aircraft located Force Z around 1015, and shortly thereafter, three successive waves of land-based Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bombers and Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers attacked Force Z. By 1300, both Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk.

Loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, December 10, 1941: Photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft during the initial high-level bombing attack. The battlecruiser Repulse, near the bottom of the view, has just been hit by one bomb and near-missed by several more. The battleship Prince of Wales is near the top of the image, generating a considerable amount of smoke. The Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.

At the War Office in London, the General Staff knew, “it was almost certain, once the Japanese had established themselves in northern Malaya, that Singapore was doomed.” The War Office never imagined an invasion of Malaya as the enemy course of action. With no recognition of a threat, British Malay had no defenses and ill-trained defenders.

Despite this qualitative disadvantage, Churchill said, “If I had known all about it then, as I know about it now, there were no substantial resources which could have been diverted from home defense, the desert, or from Soviet Russia.” After years of study and contemplation, Churchill said of the matter, “If it had been studied with the intensity with which we had examined the European and African operations, these disasters could not have been prevented, but they might at least have been foreseen.”13

The Far East had been determined to be least important of three important theatres of action, and since the situation there was the worst as well as the most remote, they were not going to receive the equipment they needed for the struggle. Britain’s assumptions for the defense of Malaya and Singapore were flawed. Britain had no tanks in Malaya. Britain had not expected Japan to land in Malaya, much less operate tanks in the jungles. Japanese tanks and bicycled mounted infantry achieved spectacular breakthroughs and rapidly advanced through Malaya.

Prime Minister Churchill’s actions are understandable—finite resources must be used economically—however, between 1919 and 1928, Churchill’s budgetary tactics greatly decreased the capacity of the British to withstand a future onslaught in the East. German rearmament began openly and in earnest in 1933. While Germany rearmed, British naval expansion was constrained by the Washington and London Naval Treaties and the economic impacts of the Great Depression.


Actions taken decades before the war amongst the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster determined the outcome of the campaign in Malaya. Decades of government policy placed British forces defending the landing beaches of Singora and Kota Bharu at a major disadvantage. Fleet size had been reduced to save money during the inter-war years. In London, the government created plans and strategies but failed to source the ships, planes, and tanks to fight the battle, and the military infrastructure necessary to support the plan.

The maintenance of the two-power standard might not have saved Singapore, but the action might not have been so rapid and one-sided. Colonel Wilfred Kent Hughes, administrative officer of the 8th Division, summed it up nicely in his mock epic poem, Slaves of the Samurai:

…Perhaps a more important sphere

Had claimed priority in men and gear.

The troops on outpost had to pay the price 

Of wasted years of selfish Avarice.14

LCDR Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He has served aboard amphibious ships, destroyers, and as operations officer of a destroyer squadron. He is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and holds a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.


[1] Farrell, Brian and Hunter, Sandy (eds.), Sixty Years On, The Fall of Singapore Revisited. Singapore: Eastern University Press, 2002, pg 220.

[2] Bell, Christopher M, The Royal Navy, Sea Power and Strategy Between the Wars. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, pg 13.

[3] Brian Farrell and Sandy Hunter, Sixty Years On, pg 32.

[4] Ibid, pg. 33.

[5] Bell, Christopher M, “How are we going to make war plans: Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond and Easter Warn Plans,” Journal of Strategic Studies, September 1997.

[6] Christopher Bell, The Royal Navy, Sea power and Strategy Between the Wars, pg 67.

[7] Ibid, pp 86-76.

[8] Ibid, pp 96-97.

[9] Churchill, Winston S, The Second World War volume IV, The Hinge of Fate. Boston: Mariner Books, 1985, pg 43.

[10] McIntyre, W. David, The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979, pg 46-48.

[11] Ibid, pg 76.

[12] Swinson, Arthur, Defeat in Malaya, the fall of Singapore. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. pp 84-85.

[13] Farrell and Hunter, pp 160-62.

[14] Ibid, pg 293.

Featured image: LTG Percival and his Staff surrendering (Credit: