I promise not to make a habit of this, but I find myself returning to the topic of nuclear weapons for the second time in a month. Two weeks ago, I was lamenting the fact that our society has basically forgotten that the nuclear sword still hangs over our heads.
We’ve lost even the basic literacy that we had during the Cold War when the danger was equally present but seemed more real than it does today. Today’s focus is different — a brief word of thanks to the man who probably saved my life. And your life. Indeed, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that he may have saved all our lives.
One of the scarier parts of the Cold War were nuclear “close calls” — moments where human error, bad judgment or technical malfunction created real risk, sometimes imminent risk, of nuclear weapons being used.
There are two that have always stuck out in my mind as particularly horrifying. One was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a Soviet submarine commander, being harassed by an American warship, decided to launch a nuclear torpedo at the U.S. vessel. The Soviet chain of command normally required only the ship’s captain and political officer to approve a nuclear launch; this submarine also had a flotilla commander aboard, and he constituted a third man in the command loop. The captain and political officer agreed to launch, but the flotilla commander refused, and probably prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis from turning into the Cuban Missile War.
The second incident is more recent and scarier.
In 1983, tensions between the West and the Soviet Union were sky high. Under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. had adopted a policy of deliberately provoking the Soviet Union, including through aggressive public statements and secret but bold military manoeuvres (for instance, flying bombers right at the Soviet Union, and then turning them around at the last moment). It was intended to rattle cages in Moscow, and assert American strength and resolve.
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What was truly horrifying, though, was that — without Western intelligence realizing this — the provocation was working a bit too well. Elements of the Soviet leadership, at the highest level, became truly convinced that a Western first strike was coming.
So much so, in fact, that the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, was instructed to watch for the first signs of that attack being imminent so that the Soviets could strike first.
I want to be very clear here so that the reader understands: the Soviet leadership wasn’t telling the KGB to find out if an attack was going to happen, because they’d already decided it was coming. They just wanted enough early warning to get the first shots in.
Thus began the largest intelligence gathering operation in Soviet history, with spies closely monitoring Western political and military leaders to try to spot anything unusual that would imply a sneak attack was imminent.
The Soviets began to suspect that an upcoming NATO military exercise was actually a cover for the preparations a sneak attack would require. The exercise was called Able Archer 83, and was, in actuality, just another war game (more sophisticated than previous ones, but fundamentally still just a training exercise). The Soviets were, in fact, so convinced that an attack was imminent that they quietly put their forces on alert, to ready a pre-emptive strike on us.
Nothing happened, of course. NATO conducted its exercise, it ended, and the Soviets quietly brought their forces off of alert status. But tensions were probably never higher — and that’s where our close call comes in.
It was Sept. 26, 1983. Able Archer was a few weeks away; the Soviets were on high alert. The Soviets had decided that if their warning system detected incoming missiles, they were going to retaliate, immediately — fire everything before American missiles could destroy the Soviet arsenal on the ground. It was a little bit after midnight when, in a bunker outside Moscow, Lieut. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the commanding officer that night, was informed that the Soviet satellites had detected an American missile in flight. It was heading for the Soviet Union.
Petrov didn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense to him that the Americans would fire a single missile. So he deemed it a false alarm — a glitch. Shortly thereafter, another alert came in — four more American missiles heading for the Soviet Union. But, again, he didn’t buy it. Five missiles didn’t make much more sense than one. If the Americans were going to attack, they’d fire hundreds of missiles all at once. So, again, he deemed it a false alarm and made no report.
He was right, of course. There were no missiles. (He only knew this for sure when no nuclear bombs landed on Soviet territory.) The entire alert was triggered, if you can believe it, by sunlight reflecting off clouds in a way that tricked Soviet satellites into concluding missiles were on the way. It was a problem easily corrected, but only after it was discovered.
It’s remarkable. At a moment of maximum tension, a single man in the Soviet Union — not even a politician or a general, but a lieutenant colonel pulling a night shift — had to make a snap judgment. There were only minutes to consider the data and pass it on (or not). Petrov didn’t react hastily or panic. He kept a cool head, determined the situation didn’t make sense, and decided that a relatively new system suffering a glitch was more likely than the U.S. starting a war with only a handful of missiles.
There are few certainties in history, and that’s doubly true when dealing in counterfactuals. But it’s easy to imagine a slightly different version of events: Petrov, knowing tensions are high and that seconds counted, decides to pass the buck. He picks up the phone, alerts his superiors that American missiles have been detected, and trusts in them to make the decision. Would they have launched? We don’t know. But it’s very easy to imagine them, getting that call in the dead of night, deciding it was all over and “retaliating.” For us in the West, of course, that “retaliation” would have appeared to be a Soviet surprise attack, and we’d have “retaliated” right back.
Nice little civilization we had once. Shame what happened to it.
Stanislav Petrov was reassigned to a less prominent job shortly thereafter and left the military the next year. He wasn’t driven out of the military., but the error was embarrassing for the Soviets and their fancy new early warning system and it was kept concealed until the 1990s. Petrov lived a mostly quiet life for the next 34 years, and the incident in 1983 is little known except among Cold War buffs today. When Petrov died, aged 77, four months ago, no one in the West noticed. It only made news here this week.
But it’s worth noticing. No one could have really blamed Petrov for picking up the phone and sounding the alarm. He’d been trained to do exactly that. But he thought before he acted. In 2017, as nuclear fears return to the forefront once more thanks to North Korea, we should all hope that every military involved has officers as cool-headed as the late Stanislav Petrov, the man who may have literally saved our world.
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