Who is Stanislav Petrov and why you should care

Posted on January 19, 2006 at 01:44 AM

Monday, September 26 1983 is an unassuming date in world history for most people. Though it is precisely that date in which the world as we now know it might have changed forever. During the pre-dawn hours of that infamous date, Lt. Col. Stanislav Evgrafovich Petrov was the officer in charge of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System for the former Soviet Union. At 40 minutes past midnight, the system detected the launch of a U.S. nuclear missile heading directly for the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Petrov made a judgement call that this inbound missile detected by the defense system had to be a false alarm. He rationalized that if the U.S. were to strike the Soviet Union they would have surely launched more than one missile. The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which was an integral part of the Cold War, probably weighed heavily in his thinking.

Tensions soon began to mount as a second warning appeared only a few minutes later signifying the launch of yet another U.S. missile. This was followed by three more alarms, for a grand total of 5 inbound nuclear missiles. Lt. Col. Petrov was now faced with two choices: either go with his gut instinct, that what he and his men were witnessing was a computer glitch, or report his findings up the chain of command, which would have assuredly started World War III.

He chose the former of the two, and with no other systems to verify if there were in fact nuclear missiles heading for the Soviet Union, Lt. Col. Petrov and his men anxiously waited for his suspicions to be confirmed. All the while realizing that if he was wrong there would not have been enough time remaining for the Soviet Union to launch a counterstrike.

As it turned out, Lt. Col. Petrov's decision was correct. It would later be revealed that a faulty satellite picked up what is saw as exhaust from a minuteman rocket but more likely was solar glare reflecting off a missile silo in the U.S. Initially his peers and superior officers lauded his actions, which for all intensive purposes, helped prevent the start of World War III.

Later as his superiors further investigated the incidents of that evening, they found he had not properly filed his logs during the incident and questioned his actions with regard to military protocol that was specified. Ultimately he was made a scapegoat for the failures of the defense system that occurred that night.

On the verge of a nervous breakdown from the stress incurred from that one event, Lt. Col. Petrov retired from the military two years later in 1985. He lived in poor conditions and relative obscurity for most of the next 20 years. His only income being a pension from the Russian government for his military service (which was approx. $200/mo.). Still to this day he hasn't received any recognition or awards from Soviet/Russian government.

It wasn't until 2004 when the Association of World Citizens awarded Mr. Petrov with their World Citizen Award, which brought him not only $1000 dollars, but also world wide recognition for the actions he performed on that fateful day in 1983.

Currently, a Danish film crew is creating a documentary based on Lt. Col. Petrov's life and have brought him to the U.S. this past week to document his experiences here. Today at the United Nations, Lt. Col. Petrov will be once again recognized for his actions as the AWC award will be repeated in front of an assembly of UN officials.

Looking back at the situation, Lt. Col. Petrov may vary well be one of the greatest heroes who has ever lived, having the convictions and instinct to ignore military protocol and stave off what could have been World War III and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. Though it would be naive to conclude that this was an isolated case and there could be many other "Lt. Col. Petrov's" out there, either foreign or domestic, who too have saved the world from a nuclear holocaust with little or no recognition.

At any rate, we all owe him a great debt of thanks.

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