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This Day in History: Nuclear war is narrowly averted

On this day in 1983, a computer glitch nearly begins a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. What a tragic mistake that would have been! The real problem? Soviet satellites confused sunlight reflecting from clouds with an American missile launch.

Yikes. Fortunately, one clear-headed Soviet officer kept his cool.

Trouble began during the wee morning hours of September 26 (Soviet time). Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was on duty at a secret control station just outside Moscow. The early warning radar system was lodged in that building—and Petrov was in charge. Suddenly, the computer screen in front of him flashed a warning: A single American nuclear missile was headed toward Soviet territory!

The room full of Soviets was shocked—especially Petrov, who bore responsibility for the immediate reaction. “When I first saw the alert message, I got up from my chair,” Petrov later told a journalist. “All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic. I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences.”

Reagan addresses Americans after Korean Air 007

Obviously, he knew the rocky state of affairs between the United States and the Soviet Union at that time. Mere weeks before, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air plane that had inadvertently crossed into Soviet airspace. Tragically, a United States Congressman had been aboard that flight. In the wake of that tragedy, President Ronald Reagan had addressed Americans from the Oval Office (pictured). He spoke of the “Korean Air Line massacre” and the “inhuman” act of the USSR.

Were Americans now firing upon the Soviets? Surely Petrov wondered. Then things got worse.

“The siren went off for a second time,” Petrov later recounted. “Giant blood-red letters appeared on our main screen, saying START. It said that four more missiles had been launched,” he said.

Petrov knew that he would have to make a decision. He had minutes, not hours, to decide what to do.

“There were no rules about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov later told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of delay took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed.”

He had questions. Why would the United States fire only 5 missiles? We had 1,000 ready to go. If we wanted to start a war, why would we start with so few? Surely, we’d fire enough to do far more damage to the Soviet Union, before they had time to retaliate.

Moreover, Petrov knew that the warning system that he was relying upon was too new. It had been rushed into service. And no visual confirmation had been made of the alleged American rockets. It seemed that something was awry. But what if his hunch was wrong? “I knew perfectly well that nobody would be able to correct my mistake, if I had made one,” Petrov said later.

Nevertheless, he ordered his staff to report the alarm as a system malfunction.

“I had to make a decision. I decided . . . that it would be less damaging to qualify the rockets we detected as false alarms. After 10 or 11 [more] minutes passed, the relief came.” No missile had struck.

The Soviets were embarrassed by the whole situation, and they took it out on Petrov: He got a reprimand for failing to keep a proper journal of the events. Really?! But he’d spent those gripping moments with a telephone in one hand and an intercom in the other! Was keeping precise notes really his priority?

Petrov might have saved the world, but he was eventually forced into an early retirement. It would be years before the world knew what he’d done.

Primary Sources:



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