The Man Who Saved the World from Nuclear Destruction
Remember, remember the 26th of September,
when the unknown man becomes a defender.
That could be the very last day of the earth,
yet he saved us from doom and dearth.
The 26th of September of 1983 could have been the last day for humanity. Stanislav Petrov was an officer on duty during that day; his job was to oversee the new system Oko, a nuclear early-warning system, which wasn’t the most exciting thing to do. This day changed his life completely, and at the same time, did not change the world, thankfully for humanity.
But first, we have to know all the circumstances at that time. The Cold War was a relatively bloodless period, especially if we bear in mind that the two biggest powers on the planet were confronting each other. Relatively bloodless, though this lull was it could have been transformed into a fearsome storm, at any moment, especially on the 26th of September, ’83.
The most dangerous moments of the Cold War were in the first half of the 80s. Because this was a weird, new kind of war, it was unexpected in every way. On the Soviet side, uncertainty escalated to the highest degree possible, because of a few actions they took previously, such as the invasion of Afghanistan in December ’79. In 1980, the West boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow. The USSR started the mass production of SS-20, ballistic missiles of intermediate range at this time.
The most tragic event occurred in September 1983 when Russian SU-15 interceptor shot down a South Korean plane, KAL 007 and all the passengers and crew died, including many American citizens and the U.S. Congressman, Larry McDonald. In total, there were 269 victims. USSR knew very well the implications of their actions and feared American retaliation. Also, preparations for huge scale NATO military maneuvers in the Western Europe, called Able Archer, looked like setting the scene for war.
But that’s not all; the U.S. stationed their ballistic missile system Pershing II on the European continent, which was an obvious threat to the USSR government. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces and placed all air units in East Germany and Poland on alert. The danger did not cease until November 11th when Able Archer finally ended.
Those factors were considered in the Soviet Union as suspicious, and the realistic form of Able Archer made some in Moscow believe that it was a real preparation for war by the NATO countries. The Russians became even more nervous. Powerful people who were in possession of nuclear weapons are at their most dangerous when they are under pressure or feel anxious.
Four minutes after midnight the siren howled. The lieutenant took out a cigarette and lit it. The monitors highlighted the information that a ballistic missile was launched from U.S. soil and was heading in the direction of the USSR. In this ominous chain of events, World War III was likely to have started. Five thousand American and Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles were ready to launch at a moments notice.
All that was required was to push the red button. The USA and half of Europe would be annihilated. Every creature on earth would feel the effect of this incident. But, one cog “malfunctioned,” and that part of the machine was Stanislav Petrov himself!
At that time, the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction was real. Just one mistake would bring destruction to the world.
The nature of the alert was clear, but Petrov had some doubts. What made him feel suspicious, was that 28 out of 29 security levels that were showing the warning, were too clear and too strong. This made him think there was something wrong with the system.
Petrov disobeyed the protocols, did not follow the guidelines, and kept his cool and started to analyze the situation. “No one is starting the global conflict with a single missile.” Petrov was also the only officer in his team that received a civilian education and could think on his own initiative.
His statement later said that all of his colleagues that were professional soldiers were taught to “give and obey orders.” Petrov believes that if someone else had been on this particular shift instead of him, the alarm would have been raised.