The nightly mantra went something like this: “When they do come and I get vaporized, I hope I don’t feel it. If there is no hope and nothing left, then please God, take me and everyone else straight to Heaven.”The end was only and always, one millisecond away. I was deathly afraid of Russians, the word “Communist” brought shivers while the image of St. Basil’s Cathedral resurrected terror from the heart and bile from the stomach. No one in my generation expected to live past thirty.
If by some miracle I were to live, I vowed: “when I am a grown up, I will do something” because none of the adults were doing anything, and I couldn’t understand how they could let this madness go on. They spoke of the only viable retaliatory military option: “mutually assured destruction.” MAD. Mad? Viable? Not until I was an adult myself and decades into the peace movement as an activist, and in the Sister Cities program with Russians, did I learn just how close we came to doomsday. And ironically, it would be a Russian who would save us.
Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (Станислав Евграфович Петров) born 1939, and now a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Soviet Air Defense Forces, on September 26, 1983, suspended the madness and saved the world from nuclear annihilation. Petrov was on watch stationed in the Serpukhov-15 secret location near Moscow within the early warning system bunker code-named Oko. The newly inaugurated system signaled the launch of a U.S. Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile which was used for one purpose only—to launch a first strike or immediate counterstrike in case of nuclear alert or launch from an enemy. The Soviet Molnyia, vast elliptical orbiting satellites, were supposed to decrease the likelihood of natural phenomena being mistaken for a launch. However during that midnight Autumn Equinox in 1983, the sun’s reflection on high altitude clouds against the darkness of space mimicked the launch of first one, then later several, U.S. missiles on a trajectory toward the Soviet Union.
It was a particularly volatile time because just three weeks before this incident, the Soviet Air Force had shot down Korean Air Flight 007 with 269 people on board including United States Congressman Larry McDonald and several other Americans. President Reagan had implemented Able Archer 83 Defense System which the Soviets interpreted as an American first strike nuclear plan and policy. Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov was utterly convinced that the American government was planning an all out first strike nuclear attack against the Soviet Union and in anticipation, had implemented a LAW- launch at warning order instead of the usual required confirmation of actual attack. The confirmation would mean that Petrov notify his superiors only after noting the actual radar presence of missiles on the horizon of Soviet Air Space. Waiting for the radar to confirm an actual launch would mean loss of strategic retaliation advantage since waiting for that close range confirmation would lose valuable time for an effective retaliatory launch. Confirmation had been scrapped for the launch at warning dictum.
The LAW in MAD or Launch on Warning in a Mutually Assured Destruction scenario was a dangerous doomsday moment in the world’s close encounter of the third kind—a near third world war. Petrov’s orders were to alert the chain of command to any launch warning. He delayed. His logical reasoning intervened when he considered that a first strike by the U.S. would likely mean the launch of hundreds of missiles simultaneously, not just the few seen on his screen. He speculated, accurately so, that there was a computer error. The MAD doomsday before his very eyes was a reflective illusion.
While the Soviet government assured the world later that one man could not have made a unilateral decision to launch an all-out nuclear war, the climate at that moment most likely would have meant a “go” launch by superiors in immediate retaliation to any reported launch alert. Tensions were measured high and distrust was astronomical in those hot days of the cold war. Hasty and uncalculated actions at that moment in history might have meant the end to life as we know it on this planet.
Accounts vary as to what happened to Petrov as a result of his actions. He was, of course, grilled hard and incessantly by his superiors in an interrogation rivaled only by the KGB, FBI or CIA. He was both praised for his actions and reprimanded for not entering the incident properly in the military diary. He was not rewarded. In fact, had he been publicly recognized and applauded, his superiors would be embarrassed and the scientists behind the program would have been humiliated. For his efforts, he was assigned to a less sensitive post. He took early retirement and suffered a “nervous breakdown.” Analysts speculate that in the hair trigger paranoid climate of that incident, had Petrov reported a missile launch up the chain of command, the superiors with only moments to make a decision would likely have decided to launch. Petrov’s hesitation may have stayed an execution— of all life.
Stanilav Petrov was invited to the United Nations in New York City in May of 2004 where the Association of World Citizens presented him with an award and a trophy for his heroic action or in this case, inaction. The same day the Russian Permanent Mission Federation to the United Nations issued a press release contending that a single individual would be incapable of starting or preventing a nuclear war because of the failsafe procedures within government military protocols. However, Petrov’s role was crucial in making any kind of decision while he says he was just “doing his job.” CBS’s Walter Cronkite conducted an interview with Lt. Colonel Petrov and a documentary has been made of the incident that has yet to be broadcast.
All those Cold War years, the frightening 007 movie From Russia with Love, the radioactive symbols, the constant nuclear drills in schools, the eerie and piercing air raid sirens, the underground bunkers and fallout shelters, and the terror that lived in the children of a whole generation—was because of the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation by the Russians. Yet when the definitive moment came, it was a Russian who said to the death of the world and life as we know it: “Not on my watch;” and became the Soviet enemy and man who saved the world.