Remembering the man who saved the world

You probably haven’t heard of Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who died earlier this year aged 77. But he could be one of the most important people to have lived in recent times. Because Colonel Petrov is known as the man who helped avert nuclear war.


Photo: Queery-54, Wikimedia Commons

It all happened early in the morning of 26 September 1983. At the time, he was a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces. He worked as the duty officer at a secret command centre outside Moscow, where the Soviet military monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States. He was just a few hours into his shift when the alarms went off. Computers warned that five intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base.

To put things into perspective, all this happened at the height of the Cold War. Colonel Petrov was at a pivotal point in the decision-making chain. His superiors reported to the general staff of the Soviet military, which in turn would consult with Yuri Andropov, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, on launching a retaliatory attack.

After five nerve-racking minutes, Colonel Petrov decided that the launch reports were probably a false alarm. The reason for his decision – his distrust of the early-warning system, and the fact that so few missiles had apparently been launched. Had he thought otherwise, you might not be reading this article today!

Historians say that Colonel Petrov’s calm analysis of the situation helped avert catastrophe. According to his computer systems, a missile strike was imminent. It was estimated that there would be just 25 minutes between missile launch and detonation. Colonel Petrov had to figure out what to do. Fortunately, he decided to report the alert as a system malfunction.

‘I had a funny feeling in my gut’, he said later. ‘I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it. When people start a war, they don’t start it with just five missiles.’

Colonel Petrov was at first praised for his calm, but in an investigation that followed, he was asked why he had failed to record everything in his logbook. ‘Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand’, he replied.

The false alarm was apparently set off when the satellite mistook the sun’s reflection off the tops of clouds for a missile launch. Colonel Petrov said the system had been rushed into service because the United States had introduced a similar system. He knew it wasn’t 100% reliable.

Colonel Petrov subsequently received an award from the Association of World Citizens, and in 2013 he was awarded the Dresden Peace Prize. He was also the subject of a 2014 documentary-drama, ‘The Man Who Saved the World’. We should all be grateful that he did!