Yesterday, I found out that Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov has died. He was not well-known. In fact, he died in May, but the news only came out by chance, and even then, news outlets didn’t pick it up immediately.
Many people owe their lives to him, but few realise it. Petrov was on duty at a Soviet nuclear warning centre in 1983 when the alert sounded. Satellites had detected US nuclear missile launches. He should have picked up the phone and alerted his superiors. At the time, the West lived in fear of a Soviet first strike, and the East were concerned that the West would fire first. Had Petrov picked up the phone, as his orders dictated, the Soviet high command would probably have launched their own nuclear missiles, believing that they were simply defending themselves. The West would have responded to what was apparently a long-feared Soviet first strike, and the greatest nightmare scenario of the Cold War would have come to pass.
Petrov should have reported the missile launch. That was his job. That was what he was trained to do. But he didn’t. He picked up the phone and reported a system malfunction. He didn’t know at first if he’d made a terrible mistake, but as the minutes passed and no nuclear detonations were reported, he realised that he had done the right thing.
The Soviet military didn’t prize initiative, but on that September morning, Stanislav Petrov showed incredible initiative and courage, and in doing so, he averted nuclear war.
Image: Queery-54 via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA)