Hero who averted nuclear war in 1983 dies, aged 77
For those of us that didn’t live through the Cold War, we have never felt closer to nuclear armageddon. The Doomsday Clock is ominously set at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. President Donald Trump is promising “fire and fury” to North Korea if it persists in its nuclear threats, but the country seems unperturbed, continuing with a missile test over neighbouring Japan just last week. In this unsettling environment, it feels something of a bad omen that Stanislav Petrov – the man whose level head prevented us from an all-out nuclear war in 1983 – has died at the age of 77.
The 44-year-old Petrov was working at a missile detection bunker to the south of Moscow on 26 September 1983 when his computer alerted him to five nuclear missiles heading to the Russian capital. The Soviets had 20 minutes to respond to the threat and confirm the MAD doctrine, but Petrov went with his gut and told his officers that this was a false alarm. What they didn’t know at the time was that Petrov had no evidence to back up his gut feeling, and he would later confirm that he was only 50-50. But he was correct and ultimately saved millions of lives with his caution.
Speaking to the BBC back in 2013, Petrov recalled that incredibly stressful day when his rational calm saved the day. “I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it,” he explained.
The computer system was clear: America had launched a missile against the USSR. “There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time; that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay,” he continued. “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.”
READ NEXT: A guide to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons
Petrov’s reason for scepticism despite the computer “proof” in front of his eyes was the support services around him – satellite radar operators told him that they had detected no missiles. Alongside this, the computer read-out seemed a little too certain, given the circumstances. “There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those ‘checkpoints’. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances,” he said.
Ultimately, Petrov phoned the Soviet HQ to declare it a system malfunction – just minutes before missiles would have hit, had they really existed. “Twenty-three minutes later I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it,” he recalled.
If that seemed like a call too close for comfort, consider the alternative: Petrov had a civilian education, but most of his colleagues were military men, drilled to give and take orders. Petrov believed that somebody else would have raised the alarm triggering a counterstrike against the US.
READ NEXT: What is a hydrogen bomb?
Petrov died in May 2017, but the world is only just finding out now. Karl Schumacher – one of the first people to tell the story – tried phoning Petrov, only to be met by his son Dmitry, who informed him that his father had died four months previously.
Worryingly, this wasn’t the only near-miss the world has seen with nuclear weapons. There was the Able Archer incident (also in 1983) and the Norwegian rocket incident as recently as 1995 – when Boris Yeltsin was actually brought the nuclear weapons command suitcase, ultimately deciding not to push the button. He made the right call, given the rocket in question was just carrying scientific equipment to study the Northern Lights.
READ NEXT: Nuclear fission versus nuclear fusion
What is telling about all of these near-misses is the seriousness with which nuclear strikes were taken, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in living memory of those required to make the call. Stanislav Petrov’s death is a sobering reminder that those with the fate of the world at their fingertips don’t seem to be taking their responsibility half as seriously as past figures – at least in public. You have to hope that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s nuclear rhetoric is just propaganda-tinted bluster – that’s not a great position to be in, but it’s far better than the only logical alternative.