On 21 January 1954, the launch into Connecticut’s Thames River of USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, took the Cold War underwater. The following year, on 16 September 1955, the Soviet Union responded with the first successful submarine launch of a ballistic missile. The submarine would take its place at the centre of the conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when Vasili Arkhipov, an officer on B-59 submerged in the Caribbean Sea, narrowly averted the release of a nuclear torpedo aimed at the United States.
The Navy Art Collection at the National Museum of the US Navy in Washington, D.C. holds a series of paintings of submarines commissioned from military artists. The romantic and dreamy scenes of submarine life in works such as Edward Terhune Wilbur’s watercolour of Nathanael Greene (SSBN-636) and John Charles Roach’s depiction of a submarine base in San Diego, belie the gruelling underwater living conditions, and the dormant threat that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Images: Edward Terhune Wilbur, Nathanael Greene (SSBN-636) Underway, March 29, 1965, for 21st Polaris shot, 1969. Watercolor. Navy Art Collection; John Charles Roach, Ballast Point, San Diego, 1986. Oil on Masonite. Navy Art Collection