20TH ANNIVERSARY: WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR WAR AVERTED

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Exactly 20 years ago this week Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet military officer, averted a worldwide nuclear war. But, ironically, instead of being honored and praised for his actions, he found his life nearly ruined.

by Glen Pedersen

Bright Star Sound

September 25, 1983, is a date that could have been burned into the history books forever. On that day, against overwhelming odds, a Soviet military officer averted a worldwide nuclear war. What almost happened would have dwarfed into near obscurity any wars or terrorist attacks or natural disasters in memory.

News of this incident first surfaced in 1998 in press interviews with Stanislav Petrov, a retired lieutenant colonel, who described the chain of events that nearly led to the massive devastation of much of the Northern Hemisphere.

In a military bunker near Moscow, in the former Soviet Union, Petrov was in charge of an early warning system that used computers and satellites to alert the Soviet Union if there were ever a nuclear missile attack by the United States. The Soviet Union's strategy at that time was to fire its arsenal as soon as possible after receiving indications of an attack, according to Bruce Blair, a Cold War nuclear strategies expert and nuclear disarmament advocate with the Center for Defense Information.

It was just after midnight Sept. 26, 1983, Moscow time - still Sept. 25, a Sunday, in the West - when something went wrong. Suddenly the computer alarms sounded, warning that an American missile was heading toward the Soviet Union. Petrov reasoned that a computer error had occurred, since the United States was not likely to launch just one missile if it were attacking the Soviet Union - it would launch many. So he dismissed the warning as a false alarm.

A short time later, however, the situation turned very serious. Now the early warning system was indicating a second missile had been launched by the United States and was approaching the Soviet Union. Then it showed a third missile being launched, and then a fourth and a fifth. The sound of the alarms in the bunker was deafening, Petrov said. In front of him the word "Start" was flashing in bright lettering, presumably the instruction indicating the Soviet Union must begin launching a massive counterstrike against the United States.

Even though Petrov had a gnawing feeling the computer system was wrong, he had no way of knowing for sure. He had nothing else to go by. The Soviet Union's land-based radar was of limited usefulness since it was not capable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon. And worse, he had only a few minutes to decide what to tell the Soviet leadership. He made his final decision: He would trust his intuition and declare it a false alarm. If he were wrong, he realized nuclear missiles from the United States would soon begin raining down on the Soviet Union.

He waited. The minutes and seconds passed. Everything remained quiet - no missiles and no destruction. His decision had been right. Those around him congratulated him for his superb judgment.

It had indeed been a false alarm, and a subsequent investigation determined that the early warning satellite system had mistakenly interpreted sunlight reflections off clouds as the presence of enemy missiles.

Petrov felt an enormous sense of relief, but now he faced another problem. He had disobeyed military procedure by defying the computer warnings, and as a result he underwent intense questioning by his superiors about his actions during this ordeal. Perhaps because he had ignored the warnings, he was no longer considered a reliable military officer. Presumably in the military it is understood that orders and procedures are to be carried out unfailingly, without question.

In the end, the Soviet military did not reward or honor Petrov for his actions. It did not punish him either. But his once promising military career had come to an end. He was reassigned to a less sensitive position and soon was retired from the military. He went on to live his life in Russia as a pensioner.

The false alarm involving Petrov occurred at a time of severely strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Only three weeks earlier, the Soviet military had shot down a Korean passenger jet that had wandered into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board, including many Americans. The KGB sent a flash message to its operatives in the West, warning them to prepare for possible nuclear war, according to CNN.

Blair said the Russians "saw a U.S. government preparing for a first strike, headed by a president capable of ordering a first strike."

Reflecting the tensions of the time, the American leadership had referred to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."

With conditions so volatile at the time of the false alarm, if Petrov had declared the nuclear attack warning valid, as his instruments indicated, the Soviet leadership likely would have taken his decision as fact. A mistaken massive nuclear attack by the Soviet Union would undoubtedly have been followed by a devastating response from the Pentagon. Because of Petrov's actions, however, the risk of nuclear war was stopped well before it reached this point.

Petrov has said he does not regard himself as a hero for what he did that day. But in terms of the incalculable number of lives saved, and the overall health of the planet, he appears to have emerged as one of the greatest heroes of all time.

There is something else unsettling about this incident. Petrov was not originally scheduled to be on duty that night. Had he not been there, it is possible a different commanding officer would not have questioned the computer alarms, tragically leading the world into a nuclear holocaust. As it turned out, this incident ended fortunately for America and for the world. But unfortunately for Stanislav Petrov, it ruined his career and his health, and it deprived him of his peace of mind. This is one debt the world will never be able to repay.

On the Web: http://www.brightstarsound.com

Sources:

    http://www.brightstarsound.com
    Burrelle¬ís Information Services (Dateline NBC, Nov. 12, 2000)

    Washington Post (Feb. 10, 1999)

    BBC News (Oct. 21, 1998)

    Daily Mail (Oct. 7, 1998)

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NOTE TO EDITOR:

This incident was reported by several credible news organizations after it first became public in 1998. For links to some of these reports, see http://www.brightstarsound.com (links are near the bottom of the Home Page).

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