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Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who Saved the World from nuclear war by Doing Nothing

x028When an alarm announced that the United States had launched missiles at the Soviet Union, Stanislav Petrov could have pushed the red button to start a full-scale nuclear war. Luckily for all of us, he didn't. In 1983 in Russia, there was a man who would have been considered an enemy by the people of America. But as it turned out, he would become for them and for the world an unknown hero —  perhaps the greatest hero of all time. Because of military secrecy, and political and international differences, most of the world has not heard of this man. He is Stanislav Petrov.

This was the Cold War era, and suspicions were high – on September 1st, the Soviet Union had mistakenly shot down a Korean aircraft it had believed to be a military plane, killing 269 civilians, including an American Congressman. The Soviet Union believed that the United States might launch a missile attack at any moment, and that they would be forced to respond with their own arsenal of nuclear weapons. Several weeks after the airplane disaster, on September 23rd, another officer called in sick, so Petrov was stuck working a double shift at a secret bunker, monitoring satellite activity, when “suddenly the screen in front of me turned bright red,” Petrov told BBC News. “An alarm went off. It was piercing, loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave.”

According to the system, the United States had launched five missiles, which were rapidly heading into Soviet territory. The U.S.S.R. was under attack.

All Petrov had to do was push the flashing red button on the desk in front of him, and the Soviets would retaliate with their own battery of missiles, launching a full-scale nuclear war.

“For 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock,” he told The Washington Post. “We needed to understand, what’s next?”

Though the bunker atmosphere was chaotic, Petrov, who had trained as a scientist, took the time to analyze the data carefully before making his decision. He realized that, if the U.S. did attack, they would be unlikely to launch a mere five missiles at once. And when he studied the system’s ground-based radar, he could see no evidence of oncoming missiles.

He still couldn’t say for sure what was going on, but “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he told The Post. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

Luckily for all of us, he decided not to push that button. Later, his instincts were proven right – the malfunctioning system had given him a false alarm, and the U.S. had not deployed any missiles. Thanks to Petrov’s cool head, nuclear war had been narrowly averted, and millions of lives were saved.

Unfortunately, Petrov didn’t exactly receive a heroic reward from the Soviet military: Embarrassed by their own mistakes, and angry at Petrov for breaking military protocol, they forced him into early retirement with a pension of $200 a month. Petrov’s brave act was kept secret from the outside world until the 1998 publication of a book by one of Petrov’s fellow officers, who witnessed his courage on that terrifying night.

On this particular day, something went wrong. Suddenly the computer alarms sounded, warning that an American missile was heading toward the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Petrov reasoned that a computer error had occurred, since the United States was not likely to launch just one missile if it were attacking the Soviet Union —  it would launch many. Besides, there had been questions in the past about the reliability of the satellite system being used. So he dismissed the warning as a false alarm, concluding that no missile had actually been launched by the United States.

But then, just a short time later, the situation turned very serious. Now the computer system was indicating a second missile had been launched by the United States and was approaching the Soviet Union. Then it showed a third missile being launched, and then a fourth and a fifth. The sound of the alarms was deafening. In front of Lt. Col. Petrov the word “Start” was flashing in bright lettering, presumably the instruction indicating the Soviet Union must begin launching a massive counterstrike against the United States.

Even though Lt. Col. Petrov had a gnawing feeling the computer system was wrong, he had no way of knowing for sure. He had nothing else to go by. The Soviet Union’s land radar was not capable of detecting any missiles beyond the horizon, information that by then would be too late to be useful. And worse, he had only a few minutes to decide what to tell the Soviet leadership. He made his final decision:  He would trust his intuition and declare it a false alarm. If he were wrong, he realized nuclear missiles from the United States would soon begin raining down on the Soviet Union.

He waited. The minutes and seconds passed. Everything remained quiet — no missiles and no destruction. His decision had been right. Stanislav Petrov had prevented a worldwide nuclear war. He was a hero. Those around him congratulated him for his superb judgment.

But he had disobeyed military procedure by defying the computer warnings. And because of this, he later underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his actions during this nerve-racking ordeal. Perhaps because he had ignored the warnings, he was no longer considered a reliable military officer. Presumably in the military it is understood that orders and procedures are to be carried out unfailingly, without question.

The Fallout

It was later determined that the false alarms had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds.  The error was corrected with a cross-referencing to a geostationary satellite.  Stanislav Petrov underwent intense questioning by Soviet superiors regarding his actions.  In the end, he was neither punished nor rewarded by the Soviet government.  He was assigned to a less sensitive post and took an early retirement.  The story was first published in the early 1990s, after the release of General Yury Votintsev’s memoirs.  In January of 2006, Petrov traveled to the United States and was honored in a meeting at the United Nations in New York City.  On the same day that Petrov was honored in New York City, the Russian Federation to the United Nations issued a press release stating that no single individual would be capable of starting or preventing a nuclear war.

At this time in history, a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia was a real possibility.  Only three weeks before the missile crisis, Soviet military shot down a South Korean passenger jet, Korean Air Lines Flight 007.  The plane had entered into Soviet airspace.  The crash killed all 269 people on board.  Many Americans were killed in the attack, including U.S. congressman Larry McDonald.  In November of 1983, NATO launched military exercise Able Archer 83.  Many high ranking members of the KGB interpreted the mission as a preparation for a nuclear strike.








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