Soviet Officer Stanislav Petrov ‘Who Saved The World’ From The Nuclear War in 1983 Died At 77
I had never heard this story and did not know when I was 13 how close we had come to an all out nuclear war with the former USSR. Actually, no one did at the time. It would be years later before what really happened in September of 1983, when Russia came minutes from shooting nuclear weapons at the United States, as the result of a computer glitch.
Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov died in May of 2017. But I feel we need to continue to make sure his story is heard. H really did save the world. Not only should we continue to remember this man who though quick on his feet, we should never forget the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident.
Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the former Soviet Union’s Air Defense Forces. His purposed job was to monitor his country’s satellite system looking for any possible nuclear weapons launched by the United States of America. It was the Cold War. While most believed neither side would pull the trigger, it was a possibility and both nations kept a very close watch on the other.
The date was September 26, 1983 and it was three weeks after the Soviet military had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007. 269 people on board were killed, including a U.S. congressman. What followed was an exchange warnings and threats between the United States and the Soviets.
The Soviets were using a brand new nuclear early-warning system. In the event that the United States launched missiles towards the Soviet Union, it would detect them and aid in a decision to retaliate in a timely manner.
Only three months earlier, the Matthew Broderick movie War Games had shown us how it would work. Missiles from both sides, heading towards the other leading to mutual destruction. The movie also showed us how easily a computer could lead us to catastrophe.
Petrov was on the overnight shift in the early morning hours of Sept. 26, 1983, when the system’s computers sounded their alarm. I indicated that the U.S. had launched five nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles towards the USSR.
“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 told the BBC in 2013.
“What should he do?” Petrov asked himself. He had two choices. Send the information up the chain of command, almost guaranteeing within minutes that there would be retaliatory missiles headed towards the United states. Wait, and as he suspected, make sure that it was not a false alarm, risking his job, and possibly his life. If real, the missiles could reach the Soviet Union in just over 20 minutes.
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov told the BBC. “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.”
Except Stanislav Petrov felt deep in his heart that something was seriously wrong. It just did not all add up. Why only five missiles? He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault, not five missiles. Why would the US strike for no apparent reason? The whole situation just did not make sense. Petrov already felt uncomfortable with the reliability of the brand new system and he knew he needed to be sure.
Petrov decided to check to see if there had been a system glitch instead of sending the warning to his superiors. He was correct. Had he just followed protocol, and sent the warning up through the chain of command, the world we know today would most likely not exist. It would be a very different world that most of us cannot even comprehend.
The 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis are considered to be the closest the U.S. and the Soviets came to a nuclear exchange. It never happened.
Petrov died on May 19, 2017 at age 77, in a suburb outside Moscow. He had long since retired and was living alone. News of his death apparently went unrecognized at the time. Petrov had received an official reprimand for making mistakes in his logbook on ‘Sept. 26, 1983’.
While Petrov’s story was only told years later after the Soviet Union collapsed, he did receive a number of international awards during the final years of his life. In 2015, a docudrama about him featuring Kevin Costner was called The Man Who Saved The World.
But he never considered himself a hero.
“That was my job,” he said. “But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”
He is a hero in my book. Boy would it have changed my awesome teenage years had he not been patient to make sure the computer was correct, when it wasn’t!