The Cuban Missile Crisis is typically the gold standard for nuclear close calls. For 13 days, America had nuclear missiles ready to deploy from Italy and Turkey, while Russia did the same in Cuba. It is widely considered the nearest that we have ever been to all-out nuclear war, but there is another, more harrowing instance that has been lost to American history (likely because the hero of this tale is Russian). Every human alive should know the name Stanislav Petrov: the man who may have literally saved the world.
In the early hours of September 26th, 1983, the Soviet Union’s early-warning systems detected incoming missiles from the United States. This incident came three weeks after the U.S.S.R. shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007—killing all 269 people on board, including a U.S. congressman—so a retaliatory strike was surely anticipated by the Soviet high command. The climate of 1983 was dramatically different than the Cuban Missile Crisis’ 1962. For one, the United States had waged endless war in Vietnam, demonstrating that we were willing to take the fight anywhere on the Asian continent in order to combat the U.S.S.R.’s communism (whatever the hell that meant). Secondly, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and a year later, President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced a new foreign policy of the “rollback” of the Soviet Union—effectively declaring intent to wage war.
According to a Gallup poll in 1961, a staggering 81% of Americans preferred all-out nuclear war to living under communist rule. To call Americans brainwashed is an understatement. We laugh at North Korea’s propagandistic relationship with their rulers, but the baby boomers came of age in an America that thought communism was worse than ubiquitous nuclear radiation. It’s not like we could feign ignorance about the power of atomic weapons at that point, as it had been sixteen years since we dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred one year after this immensely depressing poll, and the next two decades were defined by wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and people in America trying to succeed Joseph McCarthy’s legacy of whipping up a Soviet hysteria that appealed to at minimum, four out of five Americans.
Combine those rising tensions with the growth of the military industrial complex, and the stage for all-out nuclear war was set for the 1980s, where NATO deployed 108 Pershing II nuclear missiles in Western Europe that had the ability to strike targets in Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania in 10 minutes. From 1981 to 1983, the United States executed psychological maneuvers designed to test Soviet radar vulnerabilities. We were literally running operations intended to make the Kremlin think we were waging war against them. Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB, initiated Operation RYAN in 1981 to collect intelligence on Reagan in preparation for a first nuclear strike by the United States. It’s difficult to overstate how bad relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were at the beginning of the 1980s. Bruce Blair, an expert on Cold War nuclear strategies said that the relationship between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.:
had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system—not just the Kremlin, not just Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, not just the KGB—but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that happened on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense phase in U.S.-Soviet relations.
With all that history at the forefront of your mind, let’s travel back to that fateful night in 1983. Stanislav Petrov was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. The lieutenant colonel’s job was to monitor the Oko early warning network—a Soviet array of satellites designed to look for nuclear missile launches. Here is what happened in Petrov’s own words, per an interview with the BBC in 2013:
“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it.
“A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’.”
The computers were issuing their highest confidence possible that America had just fired nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union. NATO had nuclear weapons that could reach Soviet targets on their western flank in 10 minutes. Every second was precious, and if Petrov did what his marching orders commanded him to do and reported these computer messages up the chain of command, we could have been in a nuclear war in a matter of minutes. Petrov continued about those tense moments:
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time; that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay.
“All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders – but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”
The reason why he didn’t report the strike to his superiors was that there were roughly 30 checkpoints for the system to go through, and he didn’t think it was possible for the system to pass all of them that quickly, so he decided to call a duty officer in the Soviet army’s headquarters and report a malfunction with the system. After making the call, all Petrov could do is sit and wait, hoping that no nuclear missiles would land in the following moments. Petrov pegged his estimate at 23 painstaking minutes before “realiz[ing] that nothing had happened.” He was right, it was a malfunction. Had he reported the false positive up to his superiors, you and I may not be here right now. Stanislav Petrov is one of the true heroes of the Cold War, and the entire world owes his good judgement a debt of infinite gratitude.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.