On the night of September 26, 1983, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov was filling in for another soldier when a satellite warning system indicated, with a “maximum” certainly level, that the United States
had fired five nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union. Though his team could not get visual confirmation because of the weather, all technical instruments were functioning properly and signaling an attack. Protocol dictated that Petrov should alert the armed forces of an incoming first strike, which would necessitate a nuclear response. Instead, Petrov declared the signal a false alarm. And then they waited. No bombs fell. Against all reason and policy, Petrov probably averted World War III, the deaths of hundreds of millions and possibly the destruction of the earth as we know it. None of us knew how close we came to nuclear holocaust. This isn’t the only instance of a close brush with disaster. In 1979 the United States almost launched an attack on the USSR when a technician at NORAD accidentally loaded a training exercise into an operational computer, simulating a full scale attack. Bomber crews boarded their planes and the Airborne Command Post took flight to manage the war from the air. Several minutes later, satellite data did not confirm the attack. But what if the satellite system had failed, as it did in the Soviet Union? It’s tempting for me to conclude that it was only the grace of God working in these situations that saved us. How was it that Petrov was “filling in” and would the soldier he replaced have reacted in a different way? In any case, it is truly frightening to contemplate the destructive power that we have created that lies in fallible human hands.