It would certainly be nice to be credited with saving the world. The title of “World Savior” would normally lead to fame, money and your name cemented in the history books. But not for Stanislav Petrov. A man whose name you likely never heard of. A man who may very well be the greatest hero of all time — by doing nothing at all.
The Cold War
On September 1st, 1983, during the peak of the cold war when tensions were at their highest, Soviet jets shot down a Korean Air civilian airliner after it crossed into Soviet airspace. For reasons still unknown, the airliner failed to respond to radio hails from the Soviet jets. The Soviets weren’t taking any chances and decided to obliterate it. The destruction of the airliner caused 269 deaths, including a US Congressman.
President Reagan called it “inhuman brutality”, “barbarism”, and said it was “a crime against humanity that must never be forgotten”. Andropov, the ailing Soviet leader, believed the US was planning a first strike. The KGB sent a flash message to all of its agents telling them “to prepare for a possible nuclear war.”
On September 23rd, just a few weeks after the airplane disaster, the officer who was supposed to be on duty that day called in sick. This meant that Petrov was stuck working a double shift monitoring the satellite activity at a secret bunker. Late into his shift, the unthinkable happened, “suddenly the screen in front of me turned bright red,” Petrov told BBC News. “An alarm went off. It was piercing, loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave.”
The U.S Launched A Nuclear Attack?
According to the Soviet’s system, the United States had just launched five missiles, all of which were speeding towards Soviet territory. The U.S.S.R believed it was under attack. All Stanislav had to do was push the big red flashing button on the desk in front of him, and the Soviets would retaliate with their own bombardment of missiles, resulting in a full-scale nuclear war.
In the bunker, there were flashing lights, beeping signals, and officers screaming for everyone to remain calm. There was a large flashing screen from the automated computer system saying simply “Начало” (START in Russian). The protocol of the Soviet Union’s military called for launch on warning. This is because the Soviet Union’s land radar could not detect missiles over the horizon, and waiting for positive identification would limit the response time to minutes. What Petrov reported in the next minute would be relayed to his military superiors, who would use that information to decide whether to start a nuclear war.
Though the atmosphere in the bunker was chaotic, Petrov, who was a trained scientist, patiently took time to study and analyze the data carefully before making a decision. He figured if the U.S. did attack, they wouldn’t be launching just five missiles. He told the BBC that it was “a gut feeling”.
The Man Who Saved The World
So Petrov made his final decision, a decision that saved the world. He decided that he would trust his gut feeling and declare it a false alarm based solely on his belief that if the U.S did launch a nuclear attack, they wouldn’t have launched just 5 missiles. If he was wrong, he knew nuclear missiles from the United States would shortly begin raining down on the Soviet Union. He waited. The minutes and seconds passed. Everything remained quiet — no missiles and no destruction. His gut feeling had been correct. Stanislav Petrov had prevented a worldwide nuclear war. He was a hero. Those around him congratulated him for his superb judgment. Later it was discovered that the false alarms had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ Molniya orbits.
Unfortunately for Petrov, he didn’t exactly receive a heroic reward from the former Soviet Union. Embarrassed by their own mistakes, and angry at Petrov for breaking military procedure, he was forced into an early retirement with a pension of just $200 USD a month. Petrov’s brave act was kept secret from the outside world until the publication of a book by one of Petrov’s fellow officers in 1998, who was there and witnessed his courage on that terrifying night.
Stanislav Petrov has said in interviews that he does not regard himself as a hero for his actions on that day. Though in terms of the incalculable number of lives that were saved by Petrov’s inaction, he may very well be one of the greatest heroes of all time.