It was a few minutes after midnight on September 28, 1983, and just outside of Moscow, in an incident not many westerners would ever find out about, millions of lives would be saved by a man who was considered to be an enemy of the free world.
It was the peak of the cold war between the United States of America and the Soviet Union and tensions were running high. The communists were expecting the capitalists’ new president, Ronald Regan, to be the first in decades to be capable of launching a first strike (a couple of months before the Russians had accidentally shot down a passenger airplane and killed several American citizens). Nuclear war seemed not only plausible, but also very possible.
Stanislav Petrov was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Russian army at the time. It was his job to use computers and satellites to warn the Soviet Union if there was ever a nuclear missile attack by the United States. In the event of such an attack, the Soviet Union’s strategy was to launch an immediate all-out nuclear weapons counterattack against the United States.
Suddenly, the computer's alarm system sounded. It was a warning that an American missile was heading toward the Soviet Union. A few minutes later, the computer was reporting that four more missiles had also been launched. In front of Lt. Col. Petrov, the word “Start” was flashing in bright lettering, presumably the instruction indicating the Soviet Union must begin launching a massive counterstrike against the United States.
Petrov had a sneaking suspicion that the computer system was somehow wrong, but had no way of knowing for sure; it was all he had to go by. The Soviet Union’s land radar was not capable of detecting any missiles beyond the horizon, information that by then would be too late to be useful. He had only a few minutes to make the most important decision of the cold war. He could either tell the Soviet leadership the United States had launched an attack, which would have resulted in a full-scale retaliation, or he could have taken a huge chance and called the incident a false alarm.
He chose the latter and took the chance. He knew that if he was wrong, the U.S. missiles would reign down upon them in minutes. He waited with great apprehension, knowing the next few minutes would be the longest of his life. The minutes passed and silence remained. His decision was right. He had saved the world from nuclear destruction.
“I had obviously never dreamt that I would ever face that situation,” the lieutenant later said. “It was the first and, as far as I know, also the last time that such a thing had happened, except for simulated practice scenarios. In a general way I had wondered if the Americans would actually attack us. We were trained by the military system to believe that the Americans easily might decide to do that. We had no way of judging by ourselves. We learned written English, but not the spoken language, because we were not supposed to be able to speak to anyone from the West. As a military man I never traveled outside the country; I did not even have a passport. The Cold War was ice cold in 1983.”
Not many people know how close we actually came on that cold night just outside of Moscow. It all literally came down to one man. We can only be grateful that the man who was entrusted with such a decision made the one that he did.
Stanislav Petrov is a hero. We all owe him not only our lives, but those of our children. Indeed, we owe him our very planet.