How one man saved the world from a nuclear holocaust

September, 1983. Michael Jackson’s Thriller is still on the charts
. Jane Fonda’s Workout Book tops the bestseller lists. NBC’s Saturday Night Live is showing promise with funnier material. In British Columbia, labour unrest is paving the way for the province-wide “Solidarity strike.” South of the border, the “acting president” Ronald Reagan is high in the saddle, and musing publicly about a Rube Goldberg-like missile defence system in outer space.

Few people know how close the world came to nuclear war that month. Even fewer know about the one person who very likely saved humanity from catastrophe at that time.

On September 5, a Korean airlines jet, with many Americans aboard, disappeared over Sakhalin, a Soviet island just north of Japan. Reagan responded with his description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The KGB communicated to its Western operatives, warning them to prepare for possible nuclear war. It’s now thought that throughout 1983 the Kremlin assumed the United States and its NATO allies were planning a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union.

With the US-led NATO organizing a military exercise that centered on using tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, these fears may have been excessive, but they weren’t entirely irrational. Reagan’s Star Wars speech earlier that year gave every indication the US/Soviet antiballistic missile treaty was heading for history’s dustbin. It seemed the Reagan administration had little or no concern about the fallout – literally and figuratively – from what many scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain regarded as a dangerously destabilizing extension of the cold war into space.

The doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) had seemingly acted to keep the peace for decades. The US and USSR both pursued a cold war policy of responding to the first signs of a nuclear attack by firing off most of their inventory of atomic weapons – which would certainly spell the end for western civilization, if not most of humanity. Nuclear deterrence worked, seemingly: US and Soviet leaders had a thermonuclear gun to each other’s head. But the times had changed. The oval office was now occupied by a former film actor who once costarred with a chimpanzee, a man who had a gig during the McCarthy era as Hollywood’s most prominent redbaiter.

Throughout the cold war, US officials inflated intelligence estimates of the “missile gap” – and the former governor was not a man given to measured reflection about the actual threat from communism. He was a man who speculated openly about trees causing pollution, and the biblical end times. Within the Kremlin, the politburo’s aging cold warriors may well have debated if they shouldn’t shoot first, before this brylcreemed ham actor had a chance.

In this overheated climate, close calls involving escalating nuclear conflict were inevitable. How close, we only came to know in retrospect, after the Russians’ 1998 declassification of an incident 15 years earlier.

Deep inside Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker somewhere in the Soviet Union, military officers regularly monitored the regime’s early warning satellites. On September 26, 1983, Serpukhov-15 rotated its officers, putting Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov in charge of the ballistic missile early warning system (BMEWS) command and control post. Petrov was not the regular duty officer at the bunker. A 2003 report in The Moscow News, notes that he “was to man a shift at the control panel in that capacity twice a month, just to keep his skills from getting rusty.”

Petrov had been told repeatedly by his superiors that the United States intended to overwhelm Soviet forces with a massive nuclear strike. It was his duty to push the button at the first sign of an attack. And he knew that duty well; Petrov had written the manual instructions for what to do in just this event.

The system at Serpukhov-15 relied on human monitoring of the satellite imagery, but the Soviets, concerned with human fallibility, added a computer system to warn of potential threats, while minimizing human interference. On the night of September 26, the Soviet’s electronic Golem alerted Petrov and his fellow colleagues to an apparent launch from the US mainland. Petrov sat watching a huge screen displaying satellite imagery of North America, when “an alarm at the command and control post went off with red lights blinking on the terminal.”

“It was a nasty shock,” Petrov later recounted to The Moscow News. “Everyone jumped from their seats, looking at me. What could I do? There was an operations procedure that I had written myself. We did what we had to do. We checked the operation of all systems - on 30 levels, one after another. Reports kept coming in: All is correct; the probability factor is two.”

Which is apparently the highest probability the system would allow: near-certainty.

Duty officer Petrov had a decision to make, and very little time to make it. He could push the button, initiating an irreversible chain reaction in a system geared to launch a counter-strike without human interference. Or he could report up the command chain (the terminus being General Secretary Andropov with his nuclear briefcase), with any US missiles taking only 15 minutes to reach Soviet territory. It was impossible to analyze such a situation comprehensively within a matter of minutes. All Petrov had to rely on was his intuition, and a growing suspicion that things weren’t right. “Missile attacks do not start from just one base, he reasoned. He also was aware there were “ lots of things a computer could mistake for a missile launch.”

Working with questionable but possibly correct information, the lieutenant colonel deemed the signal a false alarm. But his uncertainty only grew. The computer system indicated a second missile launch from the continental US missile fields toward the Soviet Union. Then a third missile, then a fourth and a fifth.

The alarms sounding in Serpukhov-15 were deafening. Lt. Col. Petrov stood watching a red button flashing “Start” in bright lettering. Time was running out - he could not wait to confirm the launch by radar. Soviet land radar was incapable of detecting any incoming missiles from beyond the horizon, which would only have been useless information by the time it was confirmed. He made his decision: Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov would not press the button.

The mistaken signal had its origins in the peculiarly Soviet means of detecting ICBM launches. Instead of looking down on the entire Earth’s surface in the manner of US satellites, Soviet satellites of the time aimed at an oblique angle, from a distance, watching the line between the upper atmosphere and outer space. This reduced the chance of mistaking naturally occurring phenomena for a missile launch. At several miles above the Earth, missiles would appear silhouetted against the black background of space.

The Soviet system was meant to nix reflections and refractions, along with a whole range of industrial and natural phenomena, as a false signal. But somehow the sun, the satellite, and US missile fields aligned in such a way that sunlight reflected from high-altitude clouds was electronically interpreted as a launch. Petrov later described the situation as “God’s own joke out of outer space.”

At the time, Petrov was not at all convinced he had acted correctly by not pressing the button, or by not passing the report up to superiors. “Not 100 percent sure. Not even close to 100 percent,” he later told reporter Mark McDonald for a Knight Ridder news report. “Waiting the next 15 minutes to see what would happen was most unnerving: Yes, terrifying. Most unpleasant.”

Petrov and the officers present at the bunker waited tensely. There were no more signals of ICBM launches. No missiles rained down on the fatherland. He had made the right decision.

This is where Petrov’s story moves into high farce. In the non-nuclear aftermath, a high-level commission headed by Col. Gen. Yuri Votintsev, commander in chief of the USSR missile and air defence forces, investigated the officer’s decision. Petrov later told The Moscow News that upon arrival at the headquarters, Votintsev had promised to put him in for a decoration, but then “put the squeeze” on the lieutenant colonel. Votintsev wanted to know why the operations log was not filled in at the time. Petrov responded that he had a phone in one hand, for reporting the situation up the command chain, and an intercom in the other, for issuing commands to subordinates. He was physically unable to write anything at the time.

When asked why he hadn’t filled it in later, when the alert was off, Petrov demonstrated a canny understanding of military double-binds. He recounted the potential trap for Moscow News. “Oh, come on, I thought – just to end up in jail, when, in a reenactment of the incident, an investigator would sit at the control panel, pick up the phone and intercom, and try to write in the logbook in real time? That would have been forgery, pure and simple.”

Petrov received no commendation for preventing World War III – just a dressing down from his superiors. The officer understood the tacit reason. If he was to be decorated for that incident, the blame would have had to fall elsewhere; “above all, those who had developed the BMEWS, including our renowned academicians who had received billions and billions in funding.”

What if he had decided otherwise? “If the Soviet Union had overreacted, it could have gone very badly, former KGB officer Oleg A. Gordievsky told The Baltimore Sun. “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.” That estimate is only for the one side’s destruction; the detection of a Soviet launch by US satellites would have elicited an immediate, devastating response from the Pentagon. “This is the closest we’ve come to accidental nuclear war,” noted Bruce Blair, director of the US Center for Defense Information, of the September 26 incident. A quickly escalating nuclear exchange could very well have emptied or destroyed each side’s remaining arsenals.

Reagan’s “morning in America” would have been “mourning in America,” reducing both nations, US and Soviet, to what writer Jonathan Schell described as a “republic of insects and grass.” A subsequent nuclear winter, in which darkness would have fallen across the planet due to atmospheric dust, would likely have spelled the end for human civilization and most lifeforms.

Lest we think this one mistaken launch warning a total anomaly, it should be remembered the nuclear weapons arsenals are still on hair-trigger alerts. Throughout the cold war there have been at least nine documented incidents of mistaken signals on both the US and Soviet side when the thermonuclear sword came down upon all our heads (flights of geese in one incident, a Norwegian missile launch in another, a rising moon, etc.). Today the Bush administration has reworked its nuclear response to endorse using small-yield, tactical nuclear missiles against “rogue nations.” Thanks to US theocons taking instruction from Book of Revelations, nuclear war has gone from unthinkable to thinkable.

Recently the 66-year-old Petrov told the Christian Science Monitor that he wished he 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?” It’s a sentiment the Crusade-minded warriors in the White House would do well to heed.

Can we always rely on a man of Petrov’s forebearance, reserve and inner strength each time the nuclear clock ticks one second closer to midnight? It’s crazy to expect any one individual in a sensitive position to save humanity – though in this case this seems to be precisely what happened.

In the end, the Soviet military neither rewarded nor honoured 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 retired from the military because of stress. He and his sick wife moved to an apartment in Friazino, a town just out of Moscow. A brief but significant eruption of international interest in his story left him with “a clutch of business cards” from both Russian and foreign reporters.

According to an article last year in the Moscow News, the initial resurgence of interest in Petrov’s story did not exactly translate into quotidian terms. His wife died, and at one point Petrov had to spend several months at home in bed, his legs so badly swollen that he could not walk. “The only local doctor who makes house calls is a GP, but the retired lieutenant colonel needs a cardiovascular specialist who has to be paid, while Petrov’s small military pension is his only source of income – his and his son’s.” As in most small towns in Russia, unemployment is high in Friazino. His son, a programmer, cannot get a job, and “the colonel can’t get a job sweeping the streets, although he wouldn’t have minded.”

Fortunately, Petrov is at last getting some recognition and respect. Last May, the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens honoured him with a small financial award of $1000. Arseny Roginsky, the director of Russia’s human rights organization, Memorial, congratulated Petrov on behalf of AWC in an awards ceremony that took place at the offices of The Moscow News.

“All the 20 years that passed since that moment, I didn’t believe I had done something extraordinary,” Petrov told USA Today in 2004. “I was simply doing my job and I did it well.” “Foreigners tend to exaggerate my heroism,” he told another reporter from Moscow. “I was in the right place at the right moment.” The man who saved the Earth prefers to think there was nothing that extraordinary in his decision. He just followed his conscience, listened to his intuition, and did the job he was assigned to do that momentous day in September 1983.

Geoff Olson