The Man Who Saved the World by Doing Absolutely Nothing

Thirty years ago, Stanislav Petrov proved a cool head in a Cold War.
Petrov receives a 2011 German media award from Karlheinz Koegel, chief of the German Media Research Group, during a ceremony in 2012. (Reuters)

It was September 26, 1983. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty at Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker outside Moscow. His job: to monitor Oko, the Soviet Union's early-warning system for nuclear attack. And then to pass along any alerts to his superiors. It was just after midnight when the alarm bells began soundingOne of the system's satellites had detected that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles. And they were heading toward the USSR. Electronic maps flashed; bells screamed; reports streamed in. A back-lit red screen flashed the word 'LAUNCH.'"

That the U.S. would be lobbing missiles toward its Soviet counterpart would not, of course, have been out of the question at that particular point in human history. Three weeks earlier, Russians had shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space. NATO had responded with a show of military exercises. The Cold War, even in the early '80s, continued apace; the threat of nuclear engagement still hovered over the stretch of land and sea that fell between Washington and Moscow.

Petrov, however, had a hunch -- "a funny feeling in my gut," he would later recall -- that the alarm ringing through the bunker was a false one. It was an intuition that was based on common sense:  The alarm indicated that only five missiles were headed toward the USSR. Had the U.S. actually been launching a nuclear attack, however, Petrov figured, it would be extensive -- much more, certainly, than five. Soviet ground radar, meanwhile, had failed to pick up corroborative evidence of incoming missiles -- even after several minutes had elapsed. The larger matter, however, was that Petrov didn't fully trust the accuracy of the Soviet technology when it came to bomb-detection. He would later describe the alert system as "raw."  

But what would you do? You're alone in a bunker, and alarms are screaming, and lights are flashing, and you have your training, and you have your intuition, and you have two choices: follow protocol or trust your gut. Either way, the world is counting on you to make the right call. 

Petrov trusted himself. He reported the satellite's detection to his superiors -- but, crucially, as a false alarm. And then, as Wired puts it, "he hoped to hell he was right." 

He was, of course. The U.S. had not attacked the Soviets. It was a false alarm. One that, had it not been treated as such, may have prompted a retaliatory nuclear attack on the U.S. and its NATO allies. Which would have then prompted … well, you can guess what it would have prompted. 

As Petrov, now retired and living in a town near Moscow, puts it of his decision: "That was my job. But they were lucky it was me on shift that night."

Thirty years later, there are lingering questions about the specific events of September 26, 1983. Was it really up to Petrov, the single man, to make the call? Weren't there other failsafes that would allow for malfunctioning technology? Wouldn't other cool heads, finally, have prevailed? Petrov, for his part, emphasizes the ambiguity of the situation, saying after the incident that he was never convinced the alarm was erroneous. (The odds of his getting it right, he now figures, were pretty much 50-50.) 

One thing that seems clear, however, is that the world carried on into September 27, 1983 in some part because Stanislav Petrov decided to trust himself over malfunctioning machines. And that may have made, in a very broad and cosmic sense, all the difference. Petrov's colleagues were professional soldiers with purely military training; they would, being trained to follow instructions at all costs, likely have reported a missile strike had they been on shift at the time. Petrov, on the other hand, trusted his own intelligence, his own instincts, his own gut. He made the brave decision to do nothing.

And we're here to read about him because of it. 

 

Hat tip Nicholas Slayton and Chris Heller. 

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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