In 1983 in Russia, there was a man who would have been considered an enemy by the people of America. But as it turned out, he would become for them and for the world an unknown hero perhaps the greatest hero of all time. Because of military secrecy, and political and international differences, most of the world has not heard of this man. He is Stanislav Petrov.
The extraordinary incident leading to his heroism occurred near Moscow, in the former Soviet Union, just past midnight, Sept. 26, 1983. Because of time-zone differences, it was still Sept. 25 in America, a Sunday afternoon.
During the Cold War at this time, the United States and the Soviet Union were bitter adversaries. These two world powers did not trust each other, and this distrust led to a dangerous consequence: They built thousands of nuclear weapons to be used against each other if a war should ever break out between them. If there ever were such a war, these nations would very likely devastate each other and much of the world many times over, resulting in the deaths of perhaps hundreds of millions of people.
It was Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrovs duty to use computers and satellites to warn the Soviet Union if there were ever a nuclear missile attack by the United States. In the event of such an attack, the Soviet Unions strategy was to launch an immediate all-out nuclear weapons counterattack against the United States.
On this particular day, something went wrong. Suddenly the computer alarms sounded, warning that an American missile was heading toward the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Petrov reasoned that a computer error had occurred, since the United States was not likely to launch just one missile if it were attacking the Soviet Union it would launch many. Besides, there had been questions in the past about the reliability of the satellite system being used. So he dismissed the warning as a false alarm, concluding that no missile had actually been launched by the United States.
But then, just a short time later, the situation turned very serious. Now the computer system was indicating a second missile had been launched by the United States and was approaching the Soviet Union. Then it showed a third missile being launched, and then a fourth and a fifth. The sound of the alarms was deafening. 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.
Even though Lt. Col. Petrov had a gnawing feeling the computer system was wrong, he had no way of knowing for sure. He had nothing else to go by. The Soviet Unions land radar was not capable of detecting any missiles beyond the horizon, information that by then would be too late to be useful. And worse, he had only a few minutes to decide what to tell the Soviet leadership. He made his final decision: He would trust his intuition and declare it a false alarm. If he were wrong, he realized nuclear missiles from the United States would soon begin raining down on the Soviet Union.
He waited. The minutes and seconds passed. Everything remained quiet no missiles and no destruction. His decision had been right. Stanislav Petrov had prevented a worldwide nuclear war. He was a hero. Those around him congratulated him for his superb judgment.
But he had disobeyed military procedure by defying the computer warnings. And because of this, he later underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his actions during this nerve-racking ordeal. Perhaps because he had ignored the warnings, he was no longer considered a reliable military officer. Presumably in the military it is understood that orders and procedures are to be carried out unfailingly, without question.
In the end, the Soviet military did not reward or honor Stanislav Petrov for his actions. It did not punish him either. But his once promising military career had come to an end. He was reassigned to a less sensitive position and soon was retired from the military. He went on to live his life in Russia as a pensioner.
Because of Stanislav Petrovs actions that day in 1983, the Earth was spared what could have become the most devastating tragedy in the history of humanity. Stanislav Petrov has said he does not regard himself as a hero for what he did that day. But in terms of the incalculable number of lives saved, and the overall health of the planet Earth, he undeniably is one of the greatest heroes of all time.
There is yet something else unsettling about this incident. Stanislav Petrov was not originally scheduled to be on duty that night. Had he not been there, it is possible a different commanding officer would not have questioned the computer alarms, tragically leading the world into a nuclear holocaust. As it turned out, this incident ended fortunately for America and for the world. But unfortunately for Stanislav Petrov, it ruined his career and his health, and it deprived him of his peace of mind. This is one debt the world will never be able to repay.
(More about this incident below)
Article by Glen Pedersen
©2003, Bright Star Sound
Photo of Stanislav Petrov
©2002, The Washington Post Writers Group
Reprinted with permission.
Burrelles Information Services (Dateline NBC, Nov. 12, 2000)
Washington Post (Feb. 10, 1999)
BBC News (Oct. 21, 1998)
Daily Mail (Oct. 7, 1998)
In 1983 relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were severely strained. The timing probably could not have been worse for a mistaken nuclear attack warning. Had Stanislav Petrov declared the warning valid, as his computers indicated, the Soviet leadership likely would have taken his decision as fact. Consider what was happening in the weeks and months leading up to Sept. 25, 1983:
- The Soviet military shot down a Korean passenger jet Sept. 1, 1983 (only three weeks before this incident), killing all 269 people on board, including many Americans. Soon after, the KGB sent a flash message to its operatives in the West, warning them to prepare for possible nuclear war, according to CNN.
- The American leadership began referring to the Soviet Union as an evil empire.
- Throughout 1983 the Kremlin assumed the West was planning a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, according to experts quoted by the Federation of American Scientists.
- After President Reagans Star Wars speech March 23, 1983, the Soviets feared such a system would increase the likelihood the United States would launch a first attack since the United States would not fear retaliation, according to CNN.
- The Russians saw a U.S. government preparing for a first strike, headed by a President capable of ordering a first strike. Russian strategy is to fire its arsenal as soon as possible after receiving indications of an attack, according to Bruce Blair, an expert on Cold War nuclear strategies (Dateline NBC, Nov. 12, 2000).
- The United States and NATO were organizing a military exercise that centered on using tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Soviet leaders were concerned this was a cover for an actual invasion. (IEEE Spectrum, March 2000)
Listen to the recording World Hero to hear more of what happened that day (free listen/download).
See Insight for significant events and insight related to Stanislav Petrov and World Hero.
See More. . . for accounts of this incident by the Washington Post, PBS, BBC and other sources.
See Photos for photographs of Stanislav Petrov.
Courtesy of NASA
Scientist and humanitarian Albert Einstein, when asked what weapons would be used in the Third World War: I dont know. But I can tell you what theyll use in the Fourth rocks.
Contact BRIGHT STAR SOUND via e-mail: