September 26, 1983 — Stanislav Petrov’s cool head prevents nuclear war

Lieutenant Colonal Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was a 44 year old officer in the Army of the Soviet Union whose assignment was to monitor the early warning systems at Serpukhov-15 base, near Moscow.

Not long after midnight on September 26, 1983, Petrov was alerted to what appeared to be an American first strike, with a single nuclear missile reported to be incoming. Only three weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had shot down a commercial jet near Korea, and tensions between the USA and USSR were running high. His orders required him to pass along the warning, but Petrov hesitated. Something didn’t feel right about this to him.

Petrov concluded that a true first strike would involve hundreds of missiles fired simultaneously, with the intention of wiping out the USSR’s capacity to retaliate. A single missile made no sense – and there were already doubts about the reliability of the early warning systems. Petrov therefore reasoned – correctly – that the missile alert was caused by a computer error, and should be ignored.

In doing so, he prevented a nuclear war from breaking out in 1983, and potentially rendering the planet uninhabitable to the majority of its species, including us. The man is a hero, and should be feted around the world for the good judgement and personal integrity he displayed in this matter. Instead, hardly anyone knows his name – but at least now you do.

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