This is a story about perhaps the most overlooked guy in the history of the world, a guy who prevented millions of deaths, a guy who prevented a third World War, a guy who prevented perhaps the worst catastrophe of our time. All because of one decision.
His name is Stanislav Petrov.
This is a story about the 1983 Soviet nuclear bomb incident.
On September 25, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was sitting at the Soviet command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system, a top secret command station in the dense forests south of Moscow. The system was designed to alert the Soviet military if a missile had been launched from the United States. Petrov’s responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.
So, yeah, he was an important guy. If Petrov alerted his superiors of an attack, the Soviet Union’s strategy was to launch an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States.
Shortly after midnight, the alarm went off .
The bunker’s computers reported that the United Stated had launched an intercontinental ballistic missile toward the Soviet Union. Petrov, amazingly, didn’t panic, and decided that it must be a computer error, since a first-strike nuclear attack by the US was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missiles in order to disable any Soviet means of a counterattack. Petrov did not alert his superiors, then went back to hangin’ out in the Oko bunker.
Then, the computers identified four additional missiles. A loud klaxon horn began wailing.
Before we continue with the story – it’s important to note that Soviet generals were all generally paranoid and crazy and prone to act, even with insufficient evidence. Just three weeks before, the Soviets had shot down a Korean jet liner with 269 passengers on board, including a US Congressman and 60 other Americans, because they suspected it was a spy plane (it wasn’t). This pushed East-West tensions to their highest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It prompted Ronald Reagan to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Fun times.
And now back to the story. Petrov suspected it was still a computer error, so he asked his colleagues for visual confirmation. But it was late at night, and the atmosphere was cloudy, and the missiles were still beyond the horizon, and hilariously, his colleagues were drunk (“it can wait till tomorrow morning,” one of them said). They couldn’t confirm the attack.
Let me ask you, have you ever had to make a really big decision in a short amount of time? It’s the most stressful thing, ever. Like, ordering at a restaurant when the waiter is staring at you. Or deciding if you need to get off this exit, or maybe it’s the next one. Or choosing what shirt to buy at a store. Sometimes I am utterly incapable of making a decision, but I make one anyway, and I talk to my gut, and I hope it turns out OK.
But your gut is not a good way to make a decision when nuclear war is at stake. So with insufficient evidence, and a loud horn blaring in his ear, and a computer saying OMG THERE ARE FIVE NUCLEAR MISSILES HEADING OUR WAY, Petrov had to do one of the following:
DECISION 1: Alert your superiors and begin to launch a counter-strike. (Pros: you defend the homeland, prevent thousands of your people from dying. Cons: If it’s a false alarm, you’ve started World War III.)
DECISION 2: Do nothing and hope it’s a false alarm. (Pros: You’ve prevented a nuclear attack on the US and saved countless American lives. Cons: If you’re wrong, you’ve neglected to alert your superiors of a nuclear attack, which, um, will not go over well.)
One other thing – if in doubt, soldiers in Oko were trained to rely on the computer rather than their own instincts. And not only was the computer monitor flashing the warning signal, but it insisted that the strikes were confirmed at the highest level.
Petrov went with his instinct and did nothing.
And then, with sweaty palms, he waited.
As you probably remember, the United States did not start World War III in 1983. Petrov was right. It was indeed a false alarm, caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds had confused the satellites feeding the computer information.
His colleagues gathered round to celebrate the best decision any human has ever made. And then – I swear this is true – Petrov drank half a litre of vodka, slept for 28 hours, and went back to work, where his grateful comrades bought him a Russian-made portable TV as a reward.
There is no guarantee that a different decision would have led to nuclear war. Stanislav himself couldn’t have ordered a counter-attack, it was up to his superiors based on information he provided. But Stanislav (who is still alive!) says that the Soviet army did not have a culture that encouraged differences of opinion (this is not suprising). If he had confirmed the attack, nobody was going to contradict him. “All our military forces would be brought into combat readiness, with more than 11,000 missiles… complete overkill,” he says. “Nobody will correct me, they will all agree with me. It’s easy to agree, but I will be the only one responsible.”
This story was top secret until 1998. Petrov’s wife didn’t even know about it.
“All that happened didn’t matter to me. It was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing. I did nothing.'”