The day the Soviets and the Americans nearly blew each other up,
Where were you that day?
September 26, 1983. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in one of the tensest phases of the Cold War. President Reagan was in office, talking tough, and his counterpart in Moscow, Yuri Andropov, was blowing just as hot.
Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces was on duty in a missile detection station outside Moscow when the early warning satellite alarm went off, indicating that the U.S. had launched five missiles at the Soviet Union.
Petrov had to act quickly. The military high command was on alert, aware that U.S. missiles packing a nuclear warhead could detonate on their soil in 25 minutes. All the command members needed was Colonel Petrov’s confirmation of the incoming attack and they would unleash their own nuclear warheads.
Despite the pressure, Petrov considered his options. Just three weeks earlier the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines plane, killing all 269 passengers on board. Could this be a retaliatory strike by the U.S., whose president had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire?”
A gut feeling told Petrov that a strike by the U.S. would involve far more than five missiles and that instinct stayed his hand. He reported the incoming missiles as a false alarm and averted a nuclear holocaust. A later investigation showed that the missile warning was caused by sunlight reflecting off clouds.
No one in the West learned of this episode until many years later but on that day military personnel in monitoring stations in Minuteman missile sites in the Dakotas narrowly escaped being caught up in a nuclear tragedy. If they had received alarms of Soviet incoming missiles, they would have been obligated to respond. The magnitude of destruction that could have happened is unmeasurable.
Not the first false alarm
This was not the first time that a mistake nearly triggered a launch of the nuclear-weapons arsenals of the two superpowers.
On November 9, 1979, U.S. air defense computers showed a ballistic missile attack by a Soviet submarine, followed moments later by a Soviet ICBM attack. Minutemen missile sites went into a state of high alert while bomber crews ran to their planes. Andrews Air Force Base prepared the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, where the U.S. President would command the response.
Then the error was detected. A technician had mistakenly played a training tape that simulated a Soviet nuclear attack. Nuclear destruction was averted.
Poverty then Praise for the “Man Who Saved the World”
Stanislav Petrov was disciplined for bad record keeping after the false alarm episode and he stayed in obscurity until the late 1990s, when the former head of Soviet air defense wrote about his split-second decision. According to Petrov’s obituary in the Washington Post, poverty forced the “man who saved the world” to grow potatoes outside his apartment building to feed his family and to make soup by boiling water with a leather belt for flavor.
Then world peace organizations began to recognize the magnitude of Petrov’s split-second decision. In 2006, the Association of World Citizens honored Petrov at the UN headquarters in New York and he later received the Dresden Peace Prize for averting nuclear devastation.
The next year, Petrov traveled to the heart of the U.S. Minuteman Missile site in South Dakota to tour the place where his former foes once stood at alert, their hand inches away from the red phone that could launch a nuclear attack.
Petrov came to the place in peace, surely aware that his decision had avoided a nuclear the site from annihilation and brought the world back from the brink of nuclear war.