The man who saved the world lives within us
By James Poulos
Stanislav Petrov is not a name you’re likely to be familiar with. But it just so happens that the recently deceased former Soviet officer saved the world from a nuclear exchange at the height of the Cold War. And his experiences surrounding the event that wasn’t leave us with a powerful testament to the way human beings can achieve true greatness through the simplest and humblest of means. In that sense, his relative obscurity is more an inspiration than an injustice.
The story is this: In late September of 1983, Petrov found himself in an unthinkable position. He was on duty at the Moscow military installation where operators received first warning of incoming missiles. It was their job to determine whether the USSR was under nuclear attack — and to inform top officials, who would give the go-ahead for a response, including massive retaliation. In fact, Petrov himself was in the hot seat that day, the man whose judgment call was the only thing standing between an American nuclear attack and a Soviet nuclear response. Of course, we Americans knew no such attack was in the offing. But Petrov didn’t. So when his equipment showed incoming projectiles that day, he had to decide whether the world was now in a state of nuclear war.
“After five nerve-racking minutes — electronic maps and screens were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, trying to absorb streams of incoming information — Colonel Petrov decided that the launch reports were probably a false alarm,” as the New York Times described the moment. “As he later explained, it was a gut decision, at best a ‘50-50′ guess, based on his distrust of the early-warning system and the relative paucity of missiles that were launched.”
This was no simple hunch. […]