Can one man save the world? The late Soviet officer Stanislav Petrov, whose death took place in September, seems to have done exactly that. His calm calculations combined with his instinct probably saved the world from a Third World War and a subsequent nuclear Armageddon. It can be argued that this story has increased relevance for today’s unstable situation, where the United States and North Korea constantly exchange nuclear threats.
The date was 26 September 1983. Tensions between the superpowers were particularly high at that point. Just a few weeks beforehand a Korean Air Lines commercial plane was shot down when it crossed into Soviet airspace, resulting in the death of all 269 passengers. NATO was about to have nuclear-capable ballistic missiles able to reach Moscow in a few minutes deployed in West Germany, causing great concern to the Soviet leadership. US President Ronald Reagan had recently called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and launched his “Star Wars” program, while the Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, was convinced that the Americans were preparing for an attack.
Petrov, then a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, was working his regular command shift as a duty officer at a secret command center – which monitored Soviet early-warning satellites over the United States – when suddenly the alarms went off. The radar screens were warning that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from the United States aimed at the Soviet Union. According to the protocol he should have immediately registered and reported the strikes to the Soviet military and political leadership, who would in turn decide on a retaliatory attack. Given the political climate of that time the possibility of a retaliatory launch was extremely high.
“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”, he told the BBC. The system was warning that America had launched a missile. “A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alert from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’,” he recalled.
Although the indications on the computers were straightforward, the shocked lieutenant still had his doubts. After some extremely hard and frustrating minutes he finally decided to call and report a malfunction in the system, instead of a missile strike. His decision was mostly based on his instinct. “I had a funny feeling in my gut. I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it”, he told the Washington Post. Even though to some extent he also based his response on logical assumptions, such as the newness of the system and the fact that only five missiles were launched, he recognized that the odds were still at best 50-50. He later admitted that he was never absolutely sure that the alarm was actually a false one. “Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief”, he said.
Petrov’s decision proved to be correct, as it later became known that the alarm went off because the satellites had mistaken the reflections of sun’s rays on the top off the clouds for a missile launch. However, he was never praised for his decision by the Soviet Union. On the contrary he was reprimanded because he hadn’t described the incidents of that night in the logbook in a proper manner.
This incident didn’t come to light until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Petrov chose to remain silent because he did not want to embarrass the Soviet army because of that failure in its system, as he stated thirty years after the incident. His story remained secret until 1998, when a retired commander of Soviet missile defense published his memoires. Thanks to this book, Petrov’s role in averting a thermonuclear conflict became widely known. In 2006 he received an award from Association of World Citizens, and in 2013 he was awarded with the prestigious Dresden Peace Prize. His death was announced on 18 September.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the Cold War led many people to believe that the possibility of a nuclear war ceased to constitute an actual threat to the world security. However, nowadays the world has again reached a critical juncture. Stories about North Korea and its nuclear tests make it to the press worldwide almost every day. North Korea was the ninth country to develop nuclear weapons in 2006. During the last few months however, the situation seems to be getting out of control, causing great concern among policy-makers and specialists around the world.
The response from the United States, the country that possess the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, was not exactly calm and diplomatic. The US President, Donald Trump while addressing the United Nations General Assembly, threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatened the US. Moreover, he called Kim Jong Un “a Little Rocket Man” , reminding us in a way of Reagan’s “evil empire” quote and warned that his regime won’t be around for a long time. North Korea responded by stating that this is perceived as a declaration of war and threatened to shoot down US bombers in international airspace.
It is obvious that once again the world is facing a great challenge. Incidents like the small Cold War story described above, however, tend to remind us that in periods of great political tension it doesn’t take too much to trigger a nuclear war. Back in 1983, it was one single man’s instinct that averted such a conflict. But who knows what will happen the next time that a similar situation arises?