September 25, 1983
Most of the world is unaware anything unusual happened that autumn day. Yet the moments between September 25 & 26, 1983, nearly led to the most devastating catastrophe in the history of humanity. The sound judgment and courageous actions of Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet military officer, averted a worldwide nuclear war, preventing what could have become the tragedy of the ages. The article Stanislav Petrov - World Hero and the recording World Hero tell of this incident.
I think that this is the closest weve come to accidental nuclear war. Bruce Blair, Cold War nuclear strategy expert, Dateline NBC, Nov. 12, 2000
Even though Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrovs quick thinking and sound judgment averted a worldwide nuclear war in 1983, ironically he was not rewarded for his actions. In an interview in 1998 Stanislav Petrov said, The first reaction of my commander-general was, We will honor you. But then a commission was launched into what had gone wrong. My commanders were blamed. And if the commanders were to blame, then the subordinates like me could not be innocent. Its an old thing we have in Russia. The subordinate cannot be cleverer than the boss, so there was no honor or credit for me . . . . Once I would have liked to have been given some credit for what I did. But it is so long ago and today everything is emotionally burned out inside me. Daily Mail, Oct. 7, 1998
(Photograph © Juliet Butler / Alamy)
If the Soviet Union had overreacted, it could have gone very badly. If war had come, Soviet missiles would have destroyed Britain entirely, at least half of Germany and France, and America would have lost maybe 30 percent of its cities and infrastructure. Former KGB officer Oleg A. Gordievsky, later a British agent, quoted in an article by Scott Shane in the Baltimore Sun, Aug. 31, 2003
Had Petrov cracked and triggered a response, Soviet missiles would have rained down on U.S. cities. In turn, that would have brought a devastating response from the Pentagon. From an article by Ian Thomas in the Daily Mail, Oct. 7, 1998
In the Words of Stanislav Petrov . . .
Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov averted a worldwide nuclear war in 1983, holding firm while alarms around him were indicating that his country was under attack, with U.S. missiles launched and heading toward Soviet territory. By declaring a false alarm, he prevented any possibility of a nuclear retaliation against the West by the Soviet Union. In the past several years he has been interviewed and quoted by many journalists:
I wish I could say there is no chance of [an accidental nuclear launch today]. But when we deal with space when we [play] God who knows what will be the next surprise? Stanislav Petrov in 2004, The Christian Science Monitor, reported by Scott Peterson
In the false nuclear attack warning in 1983, Stanislav Petrovs decision to disobey procedure was intuitive: The thought crossed my mind that maybe someone had really launched a strike against us. That made it even harder to lift the receiver and say it was just a false alarm. I understood that I was taking a big risk. BBC News , reported by Allan Little
Political relations with the United States couldnt have been any worse at the time. But to launch such an attack, one would have to be completely crazy. Knight Ridder Newspapers, reported by Mark McDonald
You cant possibly analyze things properly within a couple of minutes. All you can rely on is your intuition. I had two arguments to fall back on. First, missile attacks do not start from just one base. Second, the computer is, by definition, brainless. There are lots of things it can mistake for a missile launch. The Moscow News, reported by Yuri Vasilyev
I had a funny feeling in my gut. I didnt want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it. Washington Post, reported by David Hoffman
I reported it was a false alarm, despite what the screens were showing. I just believed in my judgment and experience, and I trusted those around me. Daily Mail, reported by Ian Thomas
Although Stanislav Petrov reported a false alarm, personally he was not certain. Not 100 percent sure. Not even close to 100 percent, he said. Waiting the next 15 minutes to see what would happen was unnerving: Yes, terrifying. Most unpleasant. Knight Ridder Newspapers, reported by Mark McDonald
I had obviously never dreamt that I would ever face that situation. 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, he says thoughtfully, closing his eyes. Weekendavisen, reported by Anna Libak
A thought on Stanislav Petrovs mind every time he was on duty: I imagined if Id assume the responsibility for unleashing the Third World War and I said, no, I wouldnt. MosNews.com, reported by Anastasiya Lebedev
Regarding the false nuclear attack warning in 1983: Foreigners tend to exaggerate my heroism. [I simply did my duty.] I was in the right place at the right moment. The Moscow News, reported by Yuri Vasilyev
All the 20 years that passed since that moment, I didnt believe I had done something extraordinary. I was simply doing my job and I did it well. USA TODAY (Associated Press)
All that happened didnt matter to me it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, thats all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. So what did you do? she asked me. I did nothing. Log In Productions video interview
It is nice of them to consider me a hero. I dont know that I am. Since I am the only one in this country who has found himself in this situation, it is difficult to know if others would have acted differently. Weekendavisen, reported by Anna Libak
Compiled and edited by Glen Pedersen, producer of the recording World Hero
Often because of the secrecy inherent in many military operations, there are misunderstandings by those outside the military. In the case of the false nuclear attack warning involving Stanislav Petrov, there have been some misconceptions:
QUESTION: At the time of this incident in 1983, was Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, as an individual, in a position to push the button where he single-handedly could have launched the entire Soviet missile arsenal, unleashing World War III?
RESPONSE: No. Stanislav Petrovs sole duty that day was to monitor satellite surveillance equipment and report any missile attack warnings up the chain-of-command where, ultimately, the top Soviet leadership would decide whether to launch a retaliatory attack against the West. Whether to launch an attack was not Stanislav Petrovs decision to make. His role, however, was crucial in the process of making that decision. If he had declared the attack warnings valid, as his computers indicated, the Soviet leadership likely would have taken his decision as fact. According to Bruce Blair, a Cold War nuclear strategies expert and nuclear disarmament advocate formerly with the Center for Defense Information, and currently a nuclear security expert and a research scholar at Princeton University, The top leadership, given only a couple of minutes to decide, told that an attack had been launched, would make a decision to retaliate (Dateline NBC, Nov. 12, 2000). By using his intelligence and intuition in declaring a false alarm, Stanislav Petrov prevented any possibility of an accidental nuclear war from occurring that day.
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QUESTION: Since Lt. Col. Petrovs surveillance site presumably detected only five missiles launched toward the Soviet Union by the United States, why would anyone have considered this to be the start of a massive worldwide nuclear war?
RESPONSE: In hindsight, it is true that such a small number of missiles would not have been considered a massive attack. But at the instant this was happening, and in the short time Lt. Col. Petrov had to make a decision, he could not possibly have known the count would stop at five. Even after the fifth incoming missile was presumably detected, no one in Lt. Col. Petrovs position could have predicted what was going to happen next. (After a delay, would there be more missiles? Or no more missiles?) The small window of time he had to work with demanded that he act immediately, reporting to his superiors precisely what he knew at that moment. If Lt. Col. Petrov had declared the attack warnings valid at that point, it is conceivable the Soviet leadership would have reasoned that if it were to delay its decision to launch a retaliatory attack, much of the Soviet Union would risk certain annihilation.
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QUESTION: Wouldnt the Soviet and U.S. leaders have used their telephone Hotline to resolve the situation?
RESPONSE: In 1983, because of the bitter relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, there was virtually no trust between these two nations. Because of several disturbing events in 1983, the Soviet leadership was literally expecting a first strike by the United States. If Lt. Col. Petrov had declared the attack warnings valid, it is very likely the Soviet leadership would not have questioned the accuracy of his decision. So under these circumstances, with a perceived attack already underway, it is questionable just how beneficial the Hotline would have been.
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QUESTION: The Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations contends that Stanislav Petrov could not single-handedly have prevented a nuclear war, stating in a January 2006 news release: Under no circumstances a decision to use nuclear weapons could be made or even considered in the Soviet Union (Russia) or in the United States on the basis of data from a single source or a system. For this to happen, a confirmation is necessary from several systems: ground-based radars, early warning satellites, intelligence reports, etc. So does this mean there would have been no possibility of nuclear war that day, despite the satellite warnings of approaching enemy missiles?
RESPONSE: In its strictest sense, this is an unanswerable question. It is true that the general protocol adopted by the Soviet Union required that before a retaliatory nuclear attack against the United States could occur, multiple monitoring systems would had to have confirmed that the Soviet Union indeed was under attack. However, some Cold War analysts question whether this protocol would have been strictly adhered to in the case of the missile attack warning involving Stanislav Petrov. Because of the state of mind of the Soviet leadership in 1983, along with distressing intelligence reports, the Soviet leadership appeared seriously concerned there would eventually be a surprise nuclear missile attack by the United States. Bruce Blair, an expert on Cold War nuclear strategies, and currently a nuclear security expert and a research scholar at Princeton University, says the U.S.–Soviet relationship had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system — not just the Kremlin, not just Andropov, not just the KGB — but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents... The false alarm that happened on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in U.S.–Soviet relations. In a nationally televised interview Blair said, The Russians saw a U.S. government preparing for a first strike, headed by a President capable of ordering a first strike.
Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB chief of foreign counterintelligence who knew Soviet leader Yuri Andropov well, says that Andropovs distrust of American leaders was profound. It is conceivable that if Petrov had declared the satellite warnings valid, such an erroneous report could have provoked the Soviet leadership into becoming aggressive. Says Kalugin, The danger was in the Soviet leadership thinking, The Americans may attack, so we better attack first.
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QUESTION: Are there sources in addition to Stanislav Petrov which have confirmed the validity of the 1983 false nuclear attack warning incident?
RESPONSE: Yes. Stanislav Petrov was not the first person to make this incident known publicly. According to the Russian non-governmental press agency Interfax, based in Moscow, an official in the Russian branch of the Association of World Citizens is quoted as saying, Petrovs action became widely known, in particular in the West, following the publication of memoirs written by Col. Gen. Yury Votintsev, former commander of the Soviet Air Defenses Missile Defense Units.
Also, Stone Phillips concluded a Dateline NBC interview with Stanislav Petrov Nov. 12, 2000, by saying, You may be wondering just how verifiable this story is. Well, a former CIA official we spoke to told us it is confirmed by Russian and other sources and that he believes it. He says Petrovs account is consistent with what we knew about the Soviet early warning system at the time and the way it was operated.
Since no one has ever experienced a massive nuclear attack, it seems natural to assume it will never happen. For many people, the idea of a nuclear attack is an abstraction something so extreme and so unrealistic that it seems it can happen only in motion pictures or in novels. Many people assume that world leaders would never be so irresponsible as to let an all-out nuclear war actually take place. Little do they know . . .
Leadership Judgment in the Past
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev spoke with U.S. President John F. Kennedy at the Vienna summit June 4, 1961. Afterward President Kennedy said, I never met a man like this. I talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill 70 million people in 10 minutes, and he just looked at me as if to say, So what? From the biography Khrushchev, the Man and His Era by William Taubman, as quoted in Time, April 7, 2003
Other Leadership Judgment in the Past . . .
On April 25, 1972, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger talked with President Nixon about stepping up the Vietnam war effort, with actions such as attacking power plants and docks:
NIXON: Id rather use the nuclear bomb.
KISSINGER: That, I think, would just be too much.
NIXON: The nuclear bomb. Does that bother you? I just want you to think big.
It is unclear whether President Nixon was serious or half-serious, or whether he was just seeing what kind of response he would get from the Secretary of State.
Einstein Warns of the Future
The theories of Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientists of all time, were used in producing the atomic bomb.
The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one. One could say that it has affected us quantitatively, not qualitatively. So long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. That is not an attempt to say when it will come, but only that it is sure to come. That was true before the atomic bomb was made. What has been changed is the destructiveness of war. I do not believe that civilization will be wiped out in a war fought with the atomic bomb. Perhaps two-thirds of the people of the Earth might be killed. But enough men capable of thinking, and enough books, would be left to start again, and civilization could be restored. Albert Einstein, from Atlantic Monthly, Boston, Nov. 1945 and Nov. 1947. As told to Raymond Swing.
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. (From an interview with Dr. Alfred Werner in Liberal Judaism, April-May 1949)
(Photo scan copyrighted by the American Institute of Physics. Reprinted with permission.)
A Speech for Queen Elizabeth
By March 1983 the possibility of an all-out nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union was becoming increasingly likely. At that time in Britain, a speech not made public until 2013 and never actually delivered was written for Queen Elizabeth, according to the New York Daily News.
In that speech Queen Elizabeth would have said, Now this madness of war is once more spreading through the world and our brave country must again prepare itself to survive against great odds. She would have gone on to say, Whatever terrors lie in wait for us all, the qualities that have helped to keep our freedom intact twice already during this sad century will once more be our strength. My message therefore to you is simple. Help those who cannot help themselves, give comfort to the lonely and the homeless and let your family become the focus of hope and life to those who need it. Immediately at the conclusion of the speech the queen would have been evacuated to Scotland.
Although concerns of nuclear war were rapidly escalating, there is no evidence the queen ever approved or even saw this speech. A few days after this speech had been prepared, the American leadership began referring to the Soviet Union as an evil empire. Then in September, amid ever-mounting tensions, the false nuclear attack warning involving Stanislav Petrov occurred. The timing almost certainly could not have been worse.
In the past, any thought of nuclear war implied just one scenario: The U.S. versus the U.S.S.R. But this is no longer true. Altogether eight countries are presently known for certain to possess nuclear weapons. These countries, in addition to the United States and Russia, are China, France, Britain, Israel, India and Pakistan. A ninth country, North Korea, says it has nuclear weapons and has conducted tests. Iran is suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons, and a number of other countries reportedly have the means to produce nuclear weapons. Statistics reported in Time, Oct. 23, 2006
The public knows very little about the details of nuclear operations. It doesnt know that in the early warning centers, crews labor to meet a three-minute deadline for assessing whether attack indications from surveillance sensors are real or false, and that they go through this drill practically every day. Nor does it know that in the event of an apparent nuclear threat to North America, Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb., is allowed as little as 30 seconds to brief the President on his response options and their consequences. Or that the President would then have between zero and 12 minutes to absorb the information and choose a course of action. From an article by Bruce Blair in the March/April 2008 issue of The Defense Monitor. Bruce Blair, currently a nuclear security expert and a research scholar at Princeton University, served in the U.S. Air Force as a Minuteman ICBM launch control officer and support officer for the Strategic Air Command’s Airborne Command Post from 1970 to 1974.
Implications Maybe the tension is no longer apparent, but the threat is still real
The nuclear attack warning experienced by Stanislav Petrov in 1983 may seem like old news now. Because of its implications, however, there is no way it can be considered old news anytime in the foreseeable future. The large-scale nuclear weapons threat may now seem greatly diminished, but it must be remembered that much of the Cold War era nuclear arsenal still exists still capable of substantial overkill and still ready for use at a moments notice. However, fewer people seem openly concerned about nuclear war, with their attention now shifted toward terrorism. But one thing must be understood: Large-scale nuclear danger has not been replaced by terrorism. What is especially disturbing is that the high risk of nuclear war will almost certainly return possibly by surprise and even by accident unless it is put completely out of existence. If we dont resolve the nuclear weapons problem, ultimately our descendants will have to deal with it. And the worst of it is this: Those future generations may not be so lucky as we were in September of 1983. Glen Pedersen, producer of the recording World Hero
A Queens Insight
The sheer folly of trying to defend a nation by destroying all life on the planet must be apparent to anyone capable of rational thought. Nuclear capability must be reduced to zero, globally, permanently. There is no other option. Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan
Queen Noor al Hussein is the recipient of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundations World Citizenship Award for 2000.
It is clear that without a large public outcry, nuclear disarmament will go unfinished well into the 21st century. History is replete with examples of individuals and grassroots movements changing the trajectory of history. Huge change can and does happen. It will take massive public outrage at being held hostage to nuclear arms to turn the tide. Left to military experts and politicians, we will tinker with, but never solve, the problem of nuclear weapons. If the people lead, politicians will follow, for political will is a direct consequence of popular demand. John Pastore (excerpts from the speech Hiroshima Day, delivered Aug. 3, 1999, on the 54th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima)
John Pastore was formerly Secretary of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
It is without question that disarmament with security is the most crucial issue of our time. It is a complex problem that covers the entire spectrum from converting the armament industry to peaceful products, to building a strong and representative United Nations made capable to settle disputes between nations and peoples through the framework of world law. To achieve this goal, all of us, as the children of Hiroshima, must work together with sufficient pressure to force a change in the course of world events. It requires that we reject all propaganda and political opportunism that attempts to divide us from our common needs. We can no longer be enemies to each other, for the children of Hiroshima have but one option: to build a world community with justice, lasting peace, and a future. the late Douglas Mattern, president of the Association of World Citizens until his death in July 2011 (excerpts from his book Looking for Square Two)
Sometimes in history, what almost happened is more significant than what actually happened. We came unthinkably close to massive annihilation in 1983, and there almost certainly have been other unpublicized close calls over the years as well. It is highly possible it will happen again, and we or our descendants may not be so fortunate next time. We need to find a way to end the risk forever. The alternative is unforgivable. Glen Pedersen, producer of the recording World Hero
Differences of Opinion (Paraphrased excerpts from various Internet forums)
QUESTION: Why havent the aftermath and long-term effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki clearly shown everyone the consequences of using nuclear weapons and led to the abandonment of all nuclear weapons?
COMMENT: Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that a nuclear device can end a war, a pretty good reason to keep nuclear weapons.
RESPONSE: It may have been true a nuclear device ended the war in 1945 (what nation then was about to challenge the United States, the only nuclear-weapons-capable country in the world?), but its not true today. A nuclear confrontation now between any of the nuclear-weapons-capable nations could easily lead to mutually assured destruction.
RESPONSE: It seems to be the consensus of most people that mass-destruction nuclear weapons are here to stay. And if the future proves this true, it is likely that massive devastation will eventually occur somewhere, whether intentionally or by accident. And I think the world will regret it. Stanislav Petrovs decision in 1983, declaring a nuclear attack warning as false, bought us some extra time. But who knows for how long.
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COMMENT: Nuclear deterrence works. The prospect of getting back what you dish out is what kept and still keeps the peace.
RESPONSE: Nuclear deterrence cannot be considered reliable. The truth is, in the past weve been very lucky. There is no way nuclear deterrence can prevent the accidental start of a nuclear war, which is what came dangerously close to happening in September 1983 with the false nuclear attack warning involving Stanislav Petrov. Lt. Col. Petrov was led to believe by the computer system he was monitoring that U.S. missiles were approaching the Soviet Union. He had nothing else to go by in the short time he had to make a decision. Yet he trusted his instincts and declared it a false alarm. Its probably fortunate he was a software engineer who was aware the Soviet satellite monitoring system had weaknesses. Another commanding officer may not have questioned the alarms, especially considering the volatile, tension-filled current events of the time. Soviet missiles could then have come raining down on the United States and Europe, and no one would have had a clue why. Lt. Col. Petrov was not originally scheduled to be on duty that night. It seems we were very lucky that day.
Stanislav Petrov was interviewed by reporter Dennis Murphy on Dateline NBC (Nov. 12, 2000):
DENNIS MURPHY: I know you dont regard yourself as a hero, Colonel, but, belatedly, on behalf of the people in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, thank you for being on duty that night.
STANISLAV PETROV: Well, I accept the thanks with the condition that I am not the only person to thank.
Bruce Blair, a Cold War nuclear strategies expert and nuclear disarmament advocate, at that time with the Center for Defense Information, then said, The Russian character. They are modest. And though he wont say it, I will. I think that he most definitely was a hero.
Courtesy of NASA
The fate of so many in the hands of so few.
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