Looking back on the decades that encompassed the Cold War and the various points where nuclear war might have been initiated, it’s easy for humanity to pat itself on the back. It’s easy to forget just how rising tensions, misunderstandings and even complete accidents could have led to two great superpowers to destroy the world we know today. But for one man, Stanislav Petrov, it could have happened in 1983.
On September 22nd, 1983 Stanislav Petrov was on duty at a secret nuclear early warning system in Russia. At the time, relations between the United States and USSR were severely strained, partly because of new missiles, the Pershing IIs and partly because of the rhetoric of the new President Ronald Regan who called the Soviet Union ‘an empire of evil’ which spooked Russian authorities and made them believe that America was planning to secretly initiate a nuclear war. Three weeks before Petrov took his post, the Soviets had shot down a passenger plane, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 which they believed was on a spy mission.
Petrov was suddenly alerted to one incoming missile coming from the US from a Societ spy satellite followed by five more missiles. Although Petrov was required to inform his superiors of all missiles, Petrov judged this to be a false alarm. His reasoning was that the technology had been previously considered faulty and ground radar revealed no missiles even after minutes of delay. More importantly, Petrov had been briefed that a first strike would involve hundreds, even thousands of nuclear weapons, not merely five.
In that one moment, Petrov decided to declare the warning a false alarm and in that one act, probably saved the world.
As it turned out, the warning Petrov received was indeed a false alarm: light from the sun had reflected from a group of clouds to a Soviet spy satellite which misinterpreted the clouds as missiles. Had Petrov not been on duty and had he not trusted his instincts, the Soviet Union would have taken the warning seriously and launched a nuclear attack thus beginning World War Three and catching America completely off guard. With the Soviet leadership paranoid of an American attack, a mistake through technology and human error might have seen both superpowers obliterate both each other and their allies.
It wasn’t until years later that it was discovered how close the world had been to nuclear war and how it avoided catastrophe by a whisker. A nuclear exchange between the USSR and the USA at this time would have been the end of Western civilisation and plunged the world into centuries of nuclear winter. Humanity would still survive, but it would be a mere shadow of its former self and much of Western society, culture and history would be erased in just a few days.
Stanislav Petrov’s life after that day was uneventful and his actions were unknown until the 1990s. Even his recent death in May has only now been made public. Regardless, Stanislav Petrov’s actions ensured that the world we know today would live on. While nuclear warfare is still a hot topic, given North Korea’s ambitions, we owe a great deal to the courage and cool-headed actions of a lieutenant-colonel keeping watch in a secret bunker on 22nd September 1983.
His actions remind us that, sometimes, being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference in the world and that one must always be careful when dealing with the tremendous power we command today.
Rest in peace, Stanislav Petrov. And thank you