Today is a good day to celebrate being alive, and to thank one man in particular for that — Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov.
On September 26, 1983 — thirty-three years ago today — Lt. Col. Petrov, depending on which version of history you read (and as with everything, there are conflicting reports — I’m going with the version I know best, but they all say similar things) either definitely saved the entire human race, or only quite probably saved us all. There is, at the very least, a very good chance that if Petrov had acted differently I would not have lived to see my fifth birthday, and no-one reading this would either.
1983 was one of the points when the cold war looked very, very, close to turning into nuclear war. Reagan had announced his mad “Star Wars” missile defence plan, which would not have actually worked, but which was intended to create orbiting lasers which could zap nuclear missiles from space before they hit their targets. Had it been at all technologically feasible, this at first sounds like it would be a useful thing to have — certainly if someone was going to drop a nuclear bomb on me, I would want it to be zapped into harmlessness by a giant laser.
The problem is that this would have given the US a massive advantage in a nuclear war. Up until that point, the main thing stopping nuclear war had been a doctrine aptly called MAD, standing for Mutually Assured Destruction, which basically said that both sides should get enough nuclear weapons to completely destroy each other. That way either side would know that the other one would destroy them if they started a war, and so they wouldn’t start one.
(This sort of worked, in that so far the industrialised nations of the world haven’t been blasted into their component atoms and turned into radioactive wastelands in which no life can survive, which on balance we must consider a win. But it does rather assume that the people in charge on both sides are rational human beings, rather than demagogic narcissists with no connection to reality. Since the bombs still exist, there may possibly be a lesson here for the American electorate. Just saying…)
The problem with Star Wars then, is that it would allow the US to think they could actually *win* a nuclear war, because it would protect them from the bombs. This meant, in the eyes of the USSR’s leaders, that were Star Wars to get up and running, the result would be their country being blown to atoms.
A few years earlier, the USA had moved a load of Pershing missiles into Western Europe. Those missiles, in that location, could reach targets in the USSR within four minutes — before they’d have a chance to respond. On top of this, the US had been conducting regular “psy-ops” operations — faking bombing raids and only turning back at the last second, in attempts to provoke the Soviets into revealing details of their own defences.
This, combined with the Star Wars talk, and the fact that the then President of the USA was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and kept doing things like saying Marxism would be left “on the ash heap of history” (less than a year after the incident I’m writing about, Reagan said into a live mic, apparently as a joke, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”), led the USSR’s government to the conclusion that the USA actually thought they could win a nuclear war, and intended to have one.
For most of the last half of 1983, the leadership of the USSR were convinced that a nuclear attack was imminent, and that they had to be prepared for an immediate counterattack as soon as they had the first indication of a missile launch — anything else would be too late. The protocol was simple — as soon as a missile attack was detected, it would be reported to the leadership, who would initiate a war. The leadership of the USSR were in a worse position even than Reagan as far as decision-making goes — the then-premier Yuri Andropov was in hospital, terminally ill, for much of the year, and his second-in-command, Konstantin Chernenko, who succeeded him in February 1984, was also terminally ill and would barely live into 1985. There wasn’t time to second-guess, but even if there had been, there was no-one capable of doing so, and the military doctrine was clear. Detect attack, report attack, counterattack. No deviation allowed. That’s how it went.
And on 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov was the officer in charge of monitoring the missile detection systems. His responsibility was simple — if he saw any signs of an attack, he had to report it. And just after midnight, the systems reported five missiles entering Soviet airspace. His duty was clear — he had to let his superiors know, so they could launch all the Soviet Union’s missiles, enough to kill everyone in the world many times over, at the West.
He didn’t. Despite his orders to report any detected missiles straight away, he decided to hold off. The missile detection system was new, and he didn’t trust it, and it made no sense for the US to only launch five ICBMs — surely if they wanted to start a war, they’d launch hundreds or thousands of missiles, to destroy all the Russian warheads and minimise their own casualties?
So he waited for confirmation from land radar, which would give only four minutes for them to counterattack before the bombs started hitting. That confirmation never came. The satellites had detected the reflection of sunlight off clouds, rather than nuclear bombs.
Petrov almost certainly saved the world by ignoring his orders and deciding to wait until he had more data before starting a nuclear war. His reward was to be reprimanded for improperly filing the paperwork involved.
Petrov isn’t the only person to have literally, single-handedly, saved the world — there’s the late Vasili Arkhipov, for example, who did something similar during the Cuban missile crisis, and there were probably a couple on the US side too. But Petrov is one of a very small number indeed, and I believe the only one who is both publicly-known and still alive.
On September 26, we remember him. And try to hope that if we’re ever given a choice between following the rules and destroying the world, or using our head and saving everyone, we’re as sensible as him. Thank you, Lt Col Petrov.
This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?