Stanislav Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces who could easily have lived an accomplished but historically unremarkable life. But on 26 September 1983, an unforeseen set of circumstances led to him preventing nuclear armageddon and saving hundreds of millions of lives.
On that fateful day, Petrov was working in a Soviet control centre when a warning system alerted him to a string of incoming American nuclear missiles. But rather than following orders and launching a counterstrike on the US, Petrov waited, and the warning was revealed to have been an error.
Even in the tense history of close nuclear calls during the Cold War, Stanislav Petrov’s story stands out as especially terrifying. Arguably, given the scale of the disaster that his cool-headed heroism averted, his name should be more widely celebrated.
The threat of armageddon
Since World War Two, the threat of nuclear annihilation has never been completely absent from the global stage, but it’s also true that certain moments during the Cold War stand out as being particularly precarious. There were at least a couple of points during the Cuban Missile Crisis when tensions nearly boiled over into a full-blown nuclear disaster, and a computer glitch at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) HQ in 1979 came alarmingly close to triggering a US nuclear retaliation.
In some ways, close calls like the NORAD glitch are particularly terrifying because they give the impression that a computer error or an unlikely set of coincidences could plunge the world into a nuclear armageddon at any moment. At a stretch we may be able to convince ourselves that world leaders won’t act rashly and risk mutually assured devastation, but how confident can we be that a random error won’t trigger an accidental nuclear war? Stanislav Petrov’s story certainly suggests that such a turn of events isn’t impossible.
On 26 September 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defence Forces looked at his screen and beheld a chilling message. The word ‘Launch’ confronted him. It was horribly unambiguous: the Soviet Union’s missile attack early warning system was telling him that an American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) had been launched. His training was equally clear-cut. The Soviet Union’s nuclear policy demanded that retaliatory action must be instant.
A siren howled urgently and the early warning system announced that a second, third, fourth and fifth missile had been detected. The emergency status upgraded from ‘Launch’ to ‘Missile Strike’. Petrov knew that he had to make the most important decision of his life. The terrifying information that was being relayed to him was assigned the ‘highest’ level of reliability and he had all the data he needed to convince his superiors that urgent nuclear action should be triggered.
Mutually assured destruction
Petrov realised the gravity of the situation that confronted him. He knew that Soviet protocol in such a scenario demanded near-instant retaliation. The principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD) – upon which the Cold War practice of nuclear brinkmanship was based – relies on early warning systems like the one that was telling Petrov that five US minutemen missiles were currently making their way to Russia. According to the MAD doctrine, Russia was now compelled to launch a nuclear retaliation.
If anything, Petrov was professionally required to call the alarm. But he wasn’t convinced he should. Reflecting on that heart-stopping moment in 2013, Petrov told the BBC: “All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders. But I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.” In that instant, the whole planet sat on Petrov’s hot frying pan with him.
The stakes were unimaginably high, and Petrov could hardly have been blamed for assuming the worst. Soviet-US relations had deteriorated during President Reagan’s tenure, to the extent that the Kremlin was braced for a nuclear strike. Cold War expert Bruce G. Blair claims that “the Russians [Soviets] saw a US government preparing for a first strike, headed by a President Ronald Reagan capable of ordering a first strike.”
The timing of the warning ensured that Petrov’s decision was especially fraught. Reagan’s nuclear brinkmanship meant the USSR was poised to retaliate. It was a hair-trigger situation and Petrov had good reason to believe that alerting his superiors would almost certainly result in an urgently actioned retaliation.
Thankfully, Petrov’s instincts told him that something wasn’t right. He decided not to raise the alarm. Despite the prevailing sense that a nuclear strike could very well be imminent, and the information being relayed to him insisting that such an attack was actually happening, Petrov made a cool-headed decision.
The fact that you’re reading about a man’s act of heroism and not the biggest catastrophe to have befallen humanity means that you’ve probably already worked out that Petrov made the right call. It turned out that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds that confused Soviet satellites.
Petrov later explained that, despite the certainty of the early warning system, the information didn’t tally with reports from satellite radar operators who told him that they hadn’t detected any missiles. The surprisingly small scale of the supposed attack – five missiles – was another source of scepticism. Petrov had been trained to expect the first strike in a US nuclear attack to be massive.
It’s estimated that a Soviet nuclear strike on the US in 1983 would have killed between 82 million and 180 million people. And of course, MAD logic would have ensured a similarly devastating retaliation: a US counterstrike would have claimed the lives of between 54 million and 108 million people. It’s entirely possible that Stanislav Petrov prevented a death toll of between 136 million and 288 million.