The year was 1983. It was more than two decades after the Cuban Missile Crisis, that who-will-blink-first moment when President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev faced off over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Ask any historian today when the world came closest to nuclear war, and they’ll probably point to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and yet the story of 1983, and Stanislav Petrov, is every bit as extraordinary.
Petrov was a Soviet officer who, that fateful night in September, was manning an early-warning satellite monitoring station in a Moscow bunker. The mundane shift was suddenly interrupted by the shocking wail of a siren. It was an alert that a missile had been fired by the United States, and was heading right into the Soviet Union.
Petrov immediately leapt off his chair, realising that any decision he made in the ensuing seconds would have global consequences. More sirens sounded, indicating several more missiles had been fired, and Petrov knew that he had mere minutes to work out what to tell his superiors. He also knew the protocol would be to launch a strike in retaliation – meaning an all-out thermonuclear conflict. “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,” he later recalled.
Petrov had an agonising dilemma on his hands. On the one hand, it was just about conceivable that the Americans had gone suddenly belligerent and mounted an attack. Just weeks earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean passenger jet flying from New York to Seoul, having mistaken it for a US spy plane. Hundreds of people, including a member of the US House of Representatives, were killed, triggering an enraged response from ordinary Americans.
And yet it also made no rational sense – especially as the launch of just a handful of missiles would have been an illogically weak way to begin World War Three. And so, realising he was taking a huge gamble, Petrov decided to regard it as a system malfunction rather than an attack. As the minutes passed and he received no news of any missiles hitting targets in Russia, Petrov realised – to his vast relief – that he’d called the situation correctly. It later turned out the satellites had picked up sunlight reflected on clouds and “read” them as missiles.
If another man had been in Petrov’s place that night, someone more by-the-book, then the news would certainly have been reported to the senior military officials, and civilisation may have been obliterated in the ensuing exchange. And yet Petrov, who was given an award in the UN for averting catastrophe, remained humble. “When people started telling me that these TV reports had started calling me a hero, I was surprised," he said. “I never thought of myself as one. After all, I was literally just doing my job.
Petrov prevented a nuclear war between the Soviets, who had 35,804 nuclear warheads in 1983, and the US, which had 23,305. A 1979 report by Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment estimated that a full-scale Soviet assault on the US would kill 35 to 77 percent of the US population — or between 82 million and 180 million people in 1983. The inevitable US counterstrike would kill 20 to 40 percent of the Soviet population, or between 54 million and 108 million people. The combined death toll there (between 136 million and 288 million) swamps the death toll of any war, genocide, or other violent catastrophe in human history. Proportional to world population, it would be rivaled only by the An Lushan rebellion in eighth-century China and the Mongol conquests of the 13th century.
And it’s likely hundreds of millions more would have died once the conflict disrupted global temperatures and severely hampered agriculture. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War put the potential death toll from starvation at about 2 billion.
Petrov, almost single-handedly, prevented those deaths.
Preventing the deaths of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people was a costly decision for Petrov. If he had been wrong, and he somehow survived the American nuclear strike, he likely would’ve been executed for treason. Even though he was right, he was, according to the Washington Post’s David Hoffman, “relentlessly interrogated afterward [and] never rewarded for his decision.”
After the Cold War, Petrov would receive a number of commendations for saving the world. He was honoured at the United Nations, received the Dresden Peace Prize, and was profiled in the documentary The Man Who Saved the World. “I was just at the right place at the right time,” he told the filmmakers. He died in May 2017, at the age of 77.