It's interesting how a man can become a local hero by saving just one life--or how a fictional character can be considered a superhero by saving a few thousand--when there are people relatively unknown to history who have saved many, many times more.
These are men and women who saved millions of lives, without whom you might not exist, and whose names likely never came up in your history class.
6Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov
Nuclear war... Doomsday... WWIII... forget about everything Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron or (God forbid) Alan Moore ever mused on the subject. Fact is stranger than fiction, and the truth is we came closer to nuclear annihilation than even the most taut Cold War thriller would let on. More than once.
For instance, you probably know that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. and USSR came closer to nuclear war than ever before. But you probably don't know that if it weren't for one man, we would all be wandering around a charred, radioactive wasteland today. And that guy wasn't JFK.
It's 1962, communist Cuba had gone nuclear, John F. Kennedy had the entire island under quarantine, Nikita Khrushchev was not intimidated by the young president and Kevin Costner's reputation as a legitimate actor was on the line.
For real, they cloned Bobby Kennedy for this movie.
In the center of this hot-zone was the nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot class submarine B-59, which on October 27, 1962 decided whether you personally would be alive right now. While surrounded by a group of 11 U.S. destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph, the submarine was eventually subjected to a barrage of depth charges.
Taking this as the opening shots of WWIII (which they kind of were), Captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky ordered the B-59's nuclear-tipped missile be launched in retaliation to the U.S. surface ships. Had this been the case, it is likely that the U.S., USSR, Cuba and most of Europe would have had a full shooting-war on their hands, cowboy hats and all.
Picture this happening about 30,000 times, and all at once.
That is, if not for a guy named Vasili Arkhipov.
According to Director of the National Security Archive Thomas Blanton and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a guy called Vasili Arkhipov "saved the world". The thing is, to launch a nuke, the top three Soviets on the B-59 needed a unanimous vote. Captain Savitsky and Political Officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov were all for it, but Arkhipov, a mere second-in-command, was not all that wild about wiping out human civilization.
The three got into an argument, and Arkhipov eventually persuaded the political officer that nuking the U.S. Navy was a bad idea, and that they should resurface instead (even if it meant, you know, death). Captain Savitsky was not happy with this, but since he did not have the votes to go nuclear, the submarine surfaced, and the crisis was averted. So yeah, find out where Vasili Arkhipov is buried right now, and send him a fruit basket large enough to be seen from freaking space. He may have been a communist, but you owe him your damned life.
Of course, after that terrifyingly close call the U.S. and Soviets realized we were all walking a tightrope above a pool of lava, and that we should make peace with one other before tripping into Armageddon. Ha! Nope: We kept the Cold War going for decades afterward and in fact came just as close to annihilation again thanks to a false alarm in the 1980s (the Soviets had false radar signals showing the U.S. had launched on them.) Yet another Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov, would risk everything by standing down.
Man, the Soviets sure saved our asses a lot during our war against the...Soviets.