Happy Petrov Day! (How we narrowly avoided nuclear war on this day in 1983)
The best kind of holidayMost of us alive today owe a debt to those who avoided nuclear war in years past, and sadly, there were many occasions when that was necessary. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a well-known example, with John F. Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro, and various other government officials on all sides playing a game of poker with the lives of hundreds of millions of people (if not billions, who knows how far things would've gone). We came so very close to the edge of the abyss before stepping back...
That's why anyone even a little bit concerned with the future of humanity - leaving a better world for their children - and about all other living creatures on the planet should be against nuclear weapons and in favor of taking concrete steps to reduce the chances of them ever being used. This can't be swept under the rug. After all, what's the point of building a better society and protecting the environment if, during a moment of folly, a few people in positions of power can kill us all?
Giving us a second chanceAnyway, back to today. Few people know about it (though it's getting better known now thanks to the internet...), but on September 26, 1983, a soviet officer named Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov very probably avoided a nuclear conflict:
On September 26th, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was the officer on duty when the warning system reported a US missile launch. Petrov kept calm, suspecting a computer error.
Then the system reported another US missile launch.
And another, and another, and another.
What had actually happened, investigators later determined, was sunlight on high-altitude clouds aligning with the satellite view on a US missile base.
In the command post there were beeping signals, flashing lights, and officers screaming at people to remain calm. According to several accounts I've read, there was a large flashing screen from the automated computer system saying simply "START" (presumably in Russian). Afterward, when investigators asked Petrov why he hadn't written everything down in the logbook, Petrov replied,"Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don't have a third hand."
The policy of the Soviet Union called for launch on warning. 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. Petrov's report would be relayed to his military superiors, who would decide whether to start a nuclear war.
Launch on warning. Do you realize how crazy that is? No time to confirm, no time to think, not time to double-check and make sure. You get a nuclear warning, launch all your missiles just to be sure the other side is also obliterated!
What if someone else than Petrov had been on duty that night? Someone with a bit more zeal to follow procedures, or less brains to make a judgement call?
Petrov decided that, all else being equal, he would prefer not to destroy the world. He sent messages declaring the launch detection a false alarm, based solely on his personal belief that the US did not seem likely to start an attack using only five missiles.
Petrov was first congratulated, then extensively interrogated, then reprimanded for failing to follow procedure. He resigned in poor health from the military several months later. According to Wikipedia, he is spending his retirement in relative poverty in the town of Fryazino, on a pension of $200/month. In 2004, the Association of World Citizens gave Petrov a trophy and $1000. (source)
Next to unsung hero in the dictionary, you'll find a photo of Petrov.
And the scary part is, off course we avoided nuclear war in the past, otherwise we wouldn't be here talking about it. But that says nothing about our odds for the future...
I'll leave you with these classics from Stanley Kubrik's 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb:
"Gentlemen. You can't fight in here. This is the War Room!"