With superpower nations stacking up arsenals of nuclear weapons, close-call incidents are unfortunately common and imminent if taken lightly. The 1989 Soviet nuclear false alarm is just one of the dozen incidents that have occurred since the invention of these mass destruction bombs.
Tensions were still high between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1980s amid the Cold War. Like standing on thin ice, any sudden movement could result in an all-out war, especially after the Soviets had just shot down a stray Korean Airlines passenger plane traveling from New York into its airspace, killing all 269 people on board. The September 1983 tragic misunderstanding pushed both nations further on edge, and the false alarm weeks later could have spelled total disaster if it wasn’t precluded.
What Happened on September 26, 1983?
In the fall of 1983, a Soviet early warning satellite showed that the US had apparently launched five land-based missiles and was heading toward the country. Aside from the incident earlier that month, Soviet forces have been on high alert due to the US military buildup since the late 70s to early 80s, in addition to then-President Ronald Reagan’s anti-Soviet rhetoric.
Shortly after midnight of the 26th, 44-year-old lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was the Soviet Air Defense Forces officer on duty when the early warning, code-named Oko, housed in the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow, went off. Since the satellite was routinely checked with no recent malfunctions, the alarm would have led Stanislav to report an incoming attack according to the procedure immediately.
The system warned that the US had launched five Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and as the on-duty officer, Stanislav had only less than half an hour to decide whether the launch was a real or false alarm.
“Naturally, he began to check all the services in case there had been a software failure. He trusted the visual services the most. After all, they could observe the launch of missiles via satellite,” Dmitry Petrov recounted his father’s account via BBC Reel. “But the visual inspection was impossible because the sun was setting at that moment, and there was the terminator line, the line between day and night, and the satellite was exactly on that borderline, so they simply couldn’t see anything.”
Despite the immense tension between America and the Soviets, Stanislav felt in his gut that a computer error could have triggered the warning system. He also believed that the US was “unlikely to fire only five missiles” if they were to initiate an attack.
“My dad was on the fence because the launch of a single missile couldn’t be a declaration of war,” Dmitry added.
Furthermore, the Soviet officer was aware of the satellite system’s less-than-stellar track record, not to mention that it was still brand new. Hence, even without technical confirmations, Stanislav told his commanders to dismiss the false alarm.
“He (Stanislav) actually didn’t believe there should be a war at all because there wouldn’t be any winners. So, he just picked up the phone and said that the program was giving false information,” Dmitry recalled.
What Would Happen If Stanislav Was Not On Duty?
But what if Stanislav took the opposite route and reported to the top commander about the flashing warning? The Soviets would undoubtedly respond, and the US, taking the supposed response as a deliberate attack, would not hesitate to retaliate. As previously stated, the situation was already precarious at the time, and a wrong decision could have set off a chain reaction that would have resulted in a nuclear war between both countries.
Fortunately, his partial gut turned out to be true minutes later, as no American ICBMs, in fact, annihilated the country. Stanislav’s theory that the satellite might have mistaken the sun’s reflection off the clouds as missiles were also proven to be correct, giving the Soviet officer and the rest of the world a big sigh of relief. This error was later corrected by cross-referencing to avoid another system misinterpretation.
“For me, of course, he is a hero because he was not confused by such an unusual situation. Another person, in such a situation, might just automatically confirm the launch, and that’s it,” Dmitry said.
News about the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident wasn’t unveiled until 15 years later. When the world heard the story in 1998, Stanislav had long since retired and was living a quiet life in a small town outside Russia’s capital. It turns out that after the incident, the Soviet officer underwent an intense interrogation by his superiors about his course of action and how he didn’t follow the proper paperwork filing. This, along with other stressful factors, drove Stanislav to take early retirement.
While the Soviet Army superiors weren’t too enthusiastic about the deterrence against a nuclear war that could have killed millions and destroyed the world, the rest of the international community had expressed appreciation and gratitude to Stanislav’s right decision and has even recognized him as “The Man Who Saved the World.” He was also honored by the United Nations and received the World Citizen Award in 2004, awarded by a San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens.
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In 2007, Stanislav toured the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in the US amid the filming of the documentary dedicated to his 1983 call and expressed the surrealness of the experience, saying “[he] would never have imagined being able to visit one of the enemy’s securest sites.”
Ten years after his visit, the retired USSR officer passed away at age 77.
Unintended nuclear detonation is arguably the most devastating military threat because no one would see it coming, and those who did would retaliate, which would catapult the world into war.
Can you imagine how different the world would be if Stanislav had not been in the right place at the right time? We don’t have to see it for ourselves, thankfully.
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