“I think that this is the closest we’ve come to accidental nuclear war.”
(Bruce Blair, Director, Center for Defense Information, Dateline NBC, Nov. 12, 2000)
This month marks the 20th anniversary of an incident that could have resulted in nuclear war. The forgotten hero that singularly avoided this disaster through his cool judgment under incredible pressure is Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov, formerly of the Soviet Army.
It was the night of September 26, 1983, with Colonel Petrov in charge of 200 men operating a Russian early warning bunker just south of Moscow. Petrov’s job was monitoring incoming signals from satellites. He reported directly to the Russian early warning-system headquarters that reported to the Soviet leader on the possibility of launching a retaliatory attack.
It’s important to note that this was a period of high tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. President Reagan was calling the Soviets the ”Evil Empire.” The Russian military shot down a Korean passenger jet just three weeks prior to this incident, and the U.S. and NATO were organizing a military exercise that centered on using tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Soviet leaders were worried the west was planning a nuclear attack.
In an interview with the English newspaper Daily Mail, Colonel Petrov recalls that fateful night when alarms went off and the early warning computer screens were showing a nuclear attack launched by the United States. “I felt as if I’d been punched in my nervous system. There was a huge map of the States with a U.S. base lit up, showing that the missiles had been launched.”
For several minutes Petrov held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other as alarms continued blaring, red lights blinking, and the computers reporting that U.S. missiles were on their way. In the midst of this horrific chaos and terror, the prospect of the end of civilization itself, Petrov made an historic decision not to alert higher authorities, believing in his gut and hoping with all that is sacred, that contrary to what all the sophisticated equipment was reporting, this alarm was an error.
“I didn’t want to make a mistake,” Petrov said, “I made a decision and that was it.” The Daily Mail wrote, “Had Petrov cracked and triggered a
response, Soviet missiles would have rained down on U.S. cities. In turn, that
would have brought a devastating response from the Pentagon.”
As agonizing minutes passed, Petrov’s decision proved correct. It was a computer
error that signaled a U.S. attack. In the Daily Mail interview, Petrov said,“After it was over, I drank half a liter of vodka as if it were only a glass, and slept for 28 hours,” and he commented, “In principle, a nuclear war
could have broken out. The whole world could have been destroyed.”
In our increasingly superficial societies that praise celebrities and all manner of fools as role models, many legitimate heroes go unnoticed and without reward. In the case of Colonel Petrov, he was dismissed from the Army on a pension that in succeeding years would prove nearly worthless. Petrov’s superiors were reprimanded for the computer error, and in the Soviet system, all in the group were automatically subjected to the same treatment.
The Daily Mirror found Petrov’s health destroyed by the terrible stress of the incident. His wife died of cancer and he lives alone in a
second-floor flat in a dreary town of Fyranzino about 30 miles from Moscow.
“Once I would have liked to have been given some credit for what I did,” said Petrov, “But it is to long ago and today everything is emotionally burned out inside me. I still have a bitter feeling inside my soul as I remember the way I was treated.”
There have been many incidents like September 26, 1983; just how many we may never know. We do know that little has changed as thousands of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads remain on “hair-trigger alert” that could be launched in a few minutes notice destroying both countries in less than one hour -- perhaps initiated by a computer error.
To end this utter madness all nuclear warheads must be removed from “hair-trigger” alert and placed in storage with continuous inspection by both sides and the United Nations. Only then will be daily threat of nuclear incineration by an accident missile launch or miscalculation be eliminated.
In an interview with Stanislav Petrov on Dateline NBC (Nov. 12, 2000) reporter Dennis Murphy said: “I know you don’t regard yourself as a hero, Colonel, but, belatedly, on behalf of the people in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, thank you for being on duty that night.”
At the close of the Dateline NBC interview with Stanislav Petrov on Nov. 12, 2000, anchor Stone Phillips said, “Some of you may be wondering just how verifiable this story is. Well, a former CIA official we spoke to told us it is confirmed by Russian and other sources and that he believes it. He says Petrov’s account is consistent with what we knew about the Soviet early warning system at the time and the way it was operated. He also notes that the Russian government has never challenged the story.”
Long overdue, the Association of World Citizens is recognizing Stanislav Petrov and the debt we all owe him with a Distinguished World Citizen Award to be presented in a public ceremony in Moscow.
The author is President of the Association of World Citizens, a San Francisco based international peace organization with branches in 30 countries and NGO status with the United Nations.