Feeling That Saved the World

Friday, 20 September 2013
It was September 26, 1983, about half-passed midnight in Russia; it was September 25, 1983 in the United States on a Sunday afternoon. Deep inside Sepukhov-15, a secret bunker of Russia's Ballistic Missile Warning System command and control post deep in a forest thirty-miles northeast of Moscow, deafening alarms were suddenly tripped via their satellite warning system, picking up a flash in Montana near a Minuteman II silo. Sirens were blaring, warning lights were flashing and screens showing an unbe­lievably nightmarish hor­ror show of one, then two, then three and fi­nally five nuclear missiles speeding toward Russia at about 15,000 miles an hour.

Amid this were 120 panicked military officers and engineers sitting behind their terminals, then jumping from their seats to focus on one man whose role it was to evalu­ate incoming data, having less than fifteen minutes to de­cide whether or not to press the red button flashing the word "START" in bright letter­ing; initiating a retaliation against America, which would without doubt, literally trans­form the face of the planet. Two coun­tries would incinerate each other in one hour and radioactive fallout and a nuclear winter would bring to an end the world, as we know it. The man is 44 year-old Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov. Unbelievably, most of the world has never heard of him.

Just three weeks before, the Soviet military accidentally shot down a Korean Airline Flight 007 killing 269 people including many Americans, and President Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil ­empire." In the same year President Reagan made his Star Wars speech stoking fear in the Soviets that such new technology would in­crease the chance of America launching a first strike, along with the ability to intercept a Soviet retaliation.

Also, the United States was about to deploy the Pershing II missile that could hit Moscow from West Germany in twelve minutes; there was a series of psychological naval maneuvers by the West into Soviet strategic areas like the submarine bases in the Barents Sea, and the United States and NATO were involved in exercises known as Able Archer, using tactical nuclear weapons in Europe that put Soviet leaders on edge, fear­ing it was a cover for an invasion. With all this history, the Soviets were on hair-trigger alert. Both sides comprising a grotesque gigantic war machine poised to blow-up the planet on a moments notice, setting the stage for a perceived first strike, and setting off cascading events that would end in Armaged­don.

Petrov, trained as a scientist, was under enormous stress beyond all imagination. He recalls, his legs were "like cotton." With a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, while electronic maps and consoles were flashing, he was trying to digest all the information at once, "Everyone jumped from their seats looking at me. What could I do? There was a procedure that I had written myself." Although he had a gnawing feeling the computer system was wrong, he had no way of knowing for sure.

The ground radar units that were con­trolled from a different command center could not verify the attack because they were incapable of seeing beyond the horizon. He knew the system had flaws, "I just couldn't believe that just like that, all of a sudden, someone would hurl five missiles at us. The U.S. had not five, but a thousand missiles in battle readiness." But the protocol dictated, as did his orders, that he press the red button, automatically engaging an irretrievable launching sequence of a full-scale nuclear war, all 5,000 of their missiles against the United States.

Petrov says, "The main computer wouldn't ask me, it was made so that it wouldn't even ask. It was specially con­structed in such a way that no one could affect the system's op­erations." His paranoid supe­riors repeatedly told him that the United States would launch a massive attack against them. Despite all these factors racing through his mind, Petrov relates, "I had a funny feel­ing in my gut," and agonizingly decides it's a false alarm. So he and the crew waited. Sec­onds passed. Then min­utes... twenty agoniz­ing minutes passed. All was quiet. He was right. He averted an all-out nuclear war and everyone around him con­gratulated him for his superb judgment; there he stood; a hero of unprece­dented propor­tions.

What had happened was the false alarm came from a satellite. Shortly after midnight, the sun, the satellite system and the United States missile fields all lined up in such a way as to maximize the sunlight re­flected from high-altitude clouds in Montana, giving an appearance of several missiles in flight. The most disquieting and chilling thing about this entire story is that Stanislav Petrov was not originally scheduled to be on duty that evening; the person originally scheduled called in ill and Petrov had to work a double shift.

There is little doubt that another commanding officer, given the high-alert itchy trigger- finger paranoia of the higher echelon, would have followed protocol. The normal officer in a command post is not a scientist, and he follows check lists scrupulously, and does not deviate. They trust their equipment and do not want to make any decisions, espe­cially one of that magni­tude, and the results would have been monumentally and horrifi­cally different.

Stanislav Petrov re­tired in 1993 to care for his wife suffer­ing from a brain tumor. He now lives in a small village near Moscow, living on $200 a month pension. He was neither rewarded nor hon­ored for his actions, rather, he was in­flicted with intense ques­tion­ing by his superiors because he dis­obeyed mili­tary procedure. They didn't pun­ish him, but his promis­ing military career ended.

We almost died in 1983. The world owes him big. In 2006, this forgotten hero was honored at a special ceremony in the Dag Hammarskjold auditorium at the United Nations in New York City. Stanislav Petrov spoke there and was presented with a World Citizen Trophy by the Association of World Citizens. His heroism has earned him the title of The Man Who Averted Nuclear War. In his small apartment while making tea during an interview, he said, "I was simply a person doing my job." His inner intelligence, a feel­ing, was one of greatest gifts ever bestowed upon humanity. We thank you Stanislav, from the bottom of our hearts for listening to your inner voice.


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