Ok, so this is a little tongue in cheek. This Tuesday’s post is not about you know who, but actually a much less famous man who I recently heard about and to whom we might owe a rather huge debt of gratitude. This man’s name is Stanislav Petrov. a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Force. Although this story is over 3o years old – the existence of large arsenals of nuclear weapons make it as topical as ever!
It was September, the year 1983, at the height of the Cold War. In March that year, President Reagan had announced his Star Wars initiative and nuclear weapons were housed by the US in West Germany. To make matters even more tense, on September 1st 1983, the USSR shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 as it strayed into Soviet airspace. This was perhaps the most tense era in the Cold War since the Bay 0f Pigs crisis in the sixties.
On September 26th of the same year, our hero, Stanislav Petrov was called into work because a colleague was sick. It should be emphasized, in the light of what was to happen that night, that Stanislav was not scheduled to work that evening. Mr Petrov worked at the command center for the Oko early-warning system which, for years, had been an important but rather boring incident free environment. Just past midnight that evening, however, the system gave notice that an inter-continental ballistic missile had been launched by the US. It was Mr Petrov’s job to relay any activity such as this to his superiors, at which point a decision would be made whether to react with a counter-strike and thus set off an escalation that would inevitably lead to the deaths of millions of people and the end of the world as we knew it.
For several reasons, Mr Petrov decided that this was a false alarm. In his mind, he had determined that if the US were to attack using nuclear weapons, it would be an all out attack, and there seemed no sense in a single missile being launched. However, it was not long before another missile appeared on the warning system, and then another and a further five appeared. At this point, the original reason for not alerting his superiors was beginning to look weak. But still, Mr Petrov hesitated to let anyone know. Later, when questioned, he indicated that he knew the system was new, and that only five to seven missiles still seemed strange, but he was never quite sure. The reality of the situation was that he had around 20 minutes before it would be too late to do anything, and he continued to hesitate until finally, the system was deemed to have malfunctioned. This was apparently due to a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds!
Clearly, Stanislav Petrov’s hesitation and refusal to alert his superiors does not mean that nuclear retaliation was inevitable, but it was certainly a very real possibility. On reflection, his decisions that night could well be the reason many of us are alive today! So what happened to Mr Petrov? Well, it was deemed that any recognition or reward for this rather momentous event would have meant punishment for those who were responsible for the erroneous system, and it seems there was potential for extreme embarrassment for the Soviets over the whole incident. As a result, Mr Petrov was quietly moved aside and he took early retirement. He has since claimed that he was neither rewarded nor punished, but this incident never came to light until much later in the 1990’s. Since then, Mr Petrov has received a lot more recognition, including a recognition from the United Nations in 2006. He also became the subject of a documentary released in 2014 entitled ‘The Man Who Saved The World’.
I couldn’t resist documenting this extraordinary story in my blog as it highlighted how our lives can sometimes hang in the balance, but also how significant one person’s actions or decisions can be on the rest of us. It gave me pause for thought for how my own decisions impact the lives of others. If you are like me, and have a tendency to act without thinking things through properly at times, it is also a reminder that pausing for thought just might be a life saver!