When it comes to the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is widely seen as the closest the world has got to an all-out nuclear war. Some might disagree though: In 1983, during a huge uptick in tensions between the Soviet Union and the USA, the planet was on the brink yet again, and one single man saved the entire world – and yet, people have probably never heard of him.
This is the remarkable story of how Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov allowed the rest of the world to live.
Back in 1983, he was a Lieutenant Colonel aged 44 in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. On September 26 of that year, he was stationed in a missile detection bunker near Moscow, and it was his job to look for any surprise intercontinental ballistic missile launches from any territory allied with the United States. If he did, it was potentially his role to authorize the launch of similarly destructive Soviet missiles, to ensure the principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD).
The world back then was on edge. The US had stationed Pershing II nuclear missiles in Western Europe, and the US Air Force was testing out the radar detection capabilities of the Soviet Union by sending bombers into Soviet airspace before turning around just at the last moment. For some time, the upper echelons of the USSR were convinced that the US was preparing to strike the Motherland.
That day in September, warning lights blared, and the computer system told him that five nuclear missiles were heading to the Soviet Union and would arrive in less than 20 minutes. That meant that the USSR had less than that to launch a counter-offensive that, if he did, would have destroyed Washington DC and would have likely triggered an all-out nuclear offensive on both sides.
The siren was furiously blaring, and the computer gave him the option to launch. Indeed, his superior officers thought that he should, but taking a look at the data, Petrov concluded that this was a mistake. Despite the fact that to many it looked like a genuine launch, it was more likely a satellite error.
The key giveaway here was that there were only five missiles; a decapitation strike, one that would annihilate the USSR’s ability to govern or strike back, would involve hundreds at once. At the same time, the superpower’s ground-based radar didn’t detect any missiles arching over the horizon, suggesting they never really existed.
Without being able to confirm this directly, Petrov stood his ground and refused to tell Soviet command that they should fire back.
As it turned out, a rare alignment of the Soviet satellites caught the Sun’s glare reflecting off high-altitude clouds in a strange way and mistook it for a nuclear missile launch. Thanks to the rational and calm actions of Petrov, he averted the deaths of hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Although initially praised by the commander of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, the flaws in the missile detection system were an embarrassment to its architects. As such, the incident wasn’t made public until after the Cold War ended, and he was merely reassigned to a lower military post. He never received an award for his actions.
He reportedly took an early retirement, and in May of 2017, passed away. Speaking to the BBC shortly before his death, he said that he doesn’t consider himself a hero.
“That was my job,” he said.