Tag Archives: cold war

The Man Who Saved the World


stanislav-petrovStanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov : retired lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces.

On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines passenger jet Flight 007 was shot down over the Sea of Japan by a Soviet fighter jet. All 269 passengers and crew, including a US Congressman, were killed in cold blood. Anti-Soviet sentiment in the United States soared. Tensions rose to heights not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Three weeks later, just after midnight, the Soviets detected a missile heading straight for Moscow. Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the nuclear early-warning center that morning.

At first, Petrov could not move, unable to believe what he was seeing. But with the alarm sounding, the red screen in front of him flashed “launch”. A quick check of the “Confidence Interval” showed that this alert had the highest level of reliability. There could be no doubt. The Soviet Union was under attack. A minute later, the alarm went off again, indicating that a second missile had been launched, then a third, fourth and fifth. The red screen changed from “launch” to “missile strike.” He had to pick up the phone and notify his commander, an action that would have resulted in a counter attack. World War III would have been over long before the sun rose on the charred remains of Moscow.

Petrov was not the typical Air Defense officer. He was the only one to receive a civilian education. His colleagues were all professional soldiers; taught to take orders and follow protocol. Petrov was just a little bit skeptical. This system was new and not well tested. The fact that all systems indicated “No Margin of Error” added to his skepticism. As he reasoned through the situation, he could not understand why the Americans would only send 5 missiles? That would not incapacitate the military and retribution would be brutal. With only minutes to make a decision, Petrov checked with the satellite radar technicians. They had detected no missiles.

Later, he recalled, “I knew perfectly well that nobody would be able to correct my mistake if I had made one.” He made his decision. He called the army headquarters to report the incident as a malfunction. Then he waited. A missile would strike within minutes if he’d been wrong. 23 minutes after the first alarm, he realized that nothing had happened and he’d just saved millions of lives and quite possibly, the whole world.

The false alarm was triggered by an anomalous alignment of sunlight with high-altitude clouds over North Dakota, picked up by a spy satellite at just the wrong moment in its elliptical orbit.

After hours of intense questioning, Petrov was praised for his “correct actions” and promised a reward. However, he was later reprimanded for improper filing of paperwork on the incident. As it turns out, this incident brought to light a number of other bugs in the Soviet missile detection system. To praise Petrov would have brought attention to the failures of his superiors and influential scientist. The man who saved the world was “reassigned”, took early retirement and later, suffered a nervous breakdown. Like a Dilbert cartoon gone evil.

Sometimes, doing the right thing carries bad consequences, but that is not the end of the story. Reorgs happen. The old boss is replaced by the new boss. Yuri Andropov (former Chairman of the KGP) was General Secretary of the Communist Party (A.K.A. President of the Soviet Union) at the time. Andropov was a man who looked like he’d never laughed at a joke, ever. I am sure that Petrov was convinced, from time to time, that he was in line for a lethal dose of lead to the base of his skull. But he is alive today and living in Russia.

With the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, Petrov’s story got out. Plenty of NATO nations were eager to have Petrov over for dinner and an award (and sometimes, a little money). Petrov took it all in stride. In later years he would say, “I was neither punished nor rewarded. I was doing my job.” His nonchalance and devotion to duty made it so his wife never learned of his heroic actions. She died before it became public. “She never asked. I never brought it up.”

Good Luck and Godspeed!