Stanislav Petrov: The World's Hero
1983- The events leading up
The Cold War has just entered into an unbearably tense period between the United States and the Soviet Union.
- A Korean airliner heading from Seoul to New York has just been shot down by a Soviet interceptor citing the reason for destroying the plane as: "remaining silent after being hailed". 269 people are killed including American congressman Larry McDonald.
- The NATO exercise Operation Able Archer is underway in Europe, raising the nuclear alert levels during the simulation. The Soviets have unjustly downed a civilian plane, and now NATO sits poised to attack in their back yard.
- President Reagan announces a new missile defense system, which will become known as Star Wars.
In the early morning hours of September 26th, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov stood duty of the Serpukhov-15 Soviet satellite monitoring bunker. The bunkers task was to watch the skies for preemptive nuclear launches coming from the United States of America and respond accordingly. This assignment was nothing special for 44-year old Petrov, he was a veteran officer and had helped design the early warning system back in the 1970's. Though he was a seasoned serviceman, nothing in his years were enough to prepare him for what would happen next.
A long distance radar began signaling that it had picked up a nuclear missile launch from the west and was targeting Moscow. Chaos erupted within the control room as every emergency light began to flash. The room was anxious but became calm as this had to be a glitch. In nuclear warfare the launch of a single missile is highly unlikely due to the tactic of Mutually Assured Destruction, where one side would launch a salvo of missiles designed to utterly wipe out the receiving nation. The only retaliation left would come in the form of equal promised annihilation. Petrov knew personally that these systems could be flawed and decided to wait, understanding fully the loss of life on his hands if his gamble turned out to be wrong. What happened next would have changed the world forever.
The satellites picked up four more Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile launches, all airborne headed for the Soviet Union. This was unprecedented. One glitch was possible, but never five. Before anyone had a chance to react, the electronic command system known as Krokus had already alerted the General Staff and the Kremlin of the incoming missiles.
In less than 15 seconds Petrov had to make a decision that would affect his career and the lives of millions. Initiate a counterstrike and release the entirety of the Soviet nuclear arsenal on the United States and, if it was a glitch start a nuclear holocaust... or do nothing. Engineer's ran immediate systems checks and all programs showed to be at highest levels of accuracy indicating this was not a mistake and indeed was very real. All the monitors in the bunker flashed red, every phone was ringing and throughout the unimaginable chaos Petrov decided with full conviction on a decision: they would wait and see what happened next...
So what happened?
Well, obviously as we stand here today no nukes were ever launched. The satellites caught reflecting light off the tops of clouds aligned with U.S. missile fields and registered as a false attack, the very thing these programs were designed not to do. All indications of an imminent attack and yet one cool headed Officer prevented further escalation. Clearly, after such a feat of bravery and for making such a bold decision Petrov was rewarded right? Well, not exactly...
After the epic scale malfunction of the early defense systems Petrov became the scapegoat for the investigation into the embarrassment. He was cited for not "showing his work" as to the actions he took during the crisis for which he responded: "I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don't have a third hand!"
Stanislav Petrov was then reassigned to a lesser position within the military. When he retired shortly after he was awarded a pension of approximately $200 a month. His health deteriorated and he soon lost his wife while being unable to find work. The Soviets kept all information of the event Top-Secret until 1998.
After the declassification of the incident in 1998, Stanislav finally received recognition for his achievements.
- 2004- He was honored with a World Citizen Award, $1000 and a trophy "for averting a catastrophe"
- 2006- He was honored at the United Nations with a second World Citizen Award and was interviewed by Walter Cronkite and CBS.
- 2013- Awarded the Dresden Preis in Germany and $32,000 (USD)
Petrov to this day does not consider himself any sort of a hero. He mentioned in an interview he never even told his late wife what had happened that morning.