Stanislav Petrov was working the overnight shift on September 26, 1983 when he inadvertently saved the world from nuclear war.
As a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s Air Defense Forces, Petrov was tasked with monitoring the country’s satellites, looking for possible nuclear weapons launched by the United States. There was nothing particularly unusual about this shift until the alarms began to sound at dawn.
The alarm had indicated a warning that America had launched five nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. And it was Petrov’s job to sound the alarm that would initiate a retaliation before it was too late.
“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” Petrov remembered.
Earlier that same month, the Cold War had further escalated after the USSR had shot down a Korean commercial airliner that had flown into its airspace. The incident resulted in the deaths of 269 people including a United States Congressman from Georgia, Larry McDonald.
The heightened tensions between the two global superpowers made the decision forced on Petrov even more grave.
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”
Countless Lives Saved
Petrov hesitated because he had a gut instinct that something was off. This technology was still fairly new, and he was sure it had some kinks to be worked out. In his training, he was taught that any strike from the U.S. would most likely come as a full-fledged attack. Yet, the satellite system was only showing a handful of missiles. This hardly constituted all-out warfare. What if the satellite was incorrect? Was he willing to call in his superiors and start a nuclear war over a system error?
On the other hand, if the monitors were correct, Petrov only had 20 minutes to act before the missiles struck. After a torturous internal debate, Petrov decided not to act in haste. He quickly checked to see if the satellite had malfunctioned, causing it to report a false launch.
He soon discovered that there had in fact been an error and no missiles had been launched at all.
If Petrov had simply sounded the alarm for his superiors, as he was trained and ordered to do, there is a good chance counterstrikes would have been launched on behalf of the USSR and the world may not be as it is today.
Commenting on this historic event that almost was, arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis told NPR:
“[Petrov] just had this feeling in his gut that it wasn’t right. It was five missiles. It didn’t seem like enough. So even though by all of the protocols he had been trained to follow, he should absolutely have reported that up the chain of command and, you know, we should be talking about the great nuclear war of 1983 if any of us survived.”
Petrov serves as a great reminder that one individual can make a huge difference. Before his passing a year ago, Petrov said, “…they were lucky it was me on shift that night.” And he is absolutely right.