Stanislav Petrov and the day the world almost ended (really)

David Wright writes: Every day since Sept. 26, 1983 has to some extent been borrowed time.

That was when — during one of the most tense periods of the Cold War — Soviet warning systems announced an incoming attack by U.S. nuclear missiles. Urgent checks and rechecks of the warning system showed it was operating correctly and the attack was real. The Soviets kept their nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert so in a situation like this they could launch them before incoming U.S. missiles landed and destroyed them. This left only minutes for the Soviet launch officers to decide what to do.

The officer on duty, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, knew this situation was what the entire Soviet nuclear weapons enterprise had been built for. His job as a launch officer was to follow orders and set in motion a retaliatory nuclear launch. It was what all his training was about.

He also knew that once the U.S. detected the launch of Soviet missiles, it would respond with whatever nuclear weapons it had left. The exchange would likely destroy both countries and, we now know, put enough soot into the atmosphere to disrupt global agriculture for years and add perhaps billions to the death toll.

We’re here today because — despite the data he was getting — Petrov had doubts and broke the rules: He told his superiors it was a false alarm before he actually knew that to be true.

Soon after Petrov’s decision it became clear that it had been a false alarm: The Soviet warning satellites had been fooled by reflections of sunlight no one had anticipated. Luckily, Petrov ignored protocol and literally saved the world.

A movie about this incident — The Man Who Saved the World — is now showing in New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Portland (OR).

Unfortunately, this was not the only time the world came close to a nuclear war due to false warning, misperceptions, etc. And this problem is still with us since the U.S. and Russia each keep many hundreds of nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert. [Continue reading…]

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