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The nuclear near-miss

Where were you on September 26, 1983? I was in high school, staring out the window. Where were you on September 27, 1983? You might not have survived to see September 27. In a little-known episode that would have changed the course of human history, a nuclear war nearly broke out due a computer malfunction.

I saw a documentary on this a few years ago and found a summary of the incident in the below article. On September 26, 1983, a computer malfunction led a Soviet official to believe that the United States was launching nuclear missiles at Russia. For those of you too young to remember, the Soviet Union was our enemy back then and President Reagan made it his mission to demonize Russia and he once joked that we would wipe out that country with nuclear missiles . So when the Soviets saw that missiles were on the way, they might have easily retaliated and obliterated American cities. U.S. relations with the Soviet Union were at an all-time low in 1983 as Reagan jump-started the Cold War and Russia-phobia was the national religion. With Reagan's rhetoric, it would not have surprised the Soviets that he was firing nuclear missiles. But Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, using quick judgment, thought better of it.

We often get caught up in debates about left and right wing views and ideology. But we often overlook the X factor in politics and global relations: sheer incompetence, human error and computer malfunctions. Funny that we hear very little about this near-miss today, but computer malfunction nearly wiped us out.

These kinds of errors happen every day, as shown by the huge number of death row inmates who walk free after DNA evidence exonerates them even though so-called eyewitnesses swore that this guy killed someone, and even after the inmate confesses falsely under pressure from aggressive detectives or mental illness. Human error and incompetence reign supreme in our world, and it nearly killed us in 1983.

Published on Tuesday, September 23, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
Global Disaster Averted by a Forgotten Hero of Our Time
by Douglas Mattern

"I think that this is the closest we've come to accidental nuclear war."
-- (Bruce Blair, Director, Center for Defense Information, Dateline NBC, Nov. 12, 2000)

This month marks the 20th anniversary of an incident that could have resulted in nuclear war. The forgotten hero that singularly avoided this disaster through his cool judgment under incredible pressure is Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov, formerly of the Soviet Army.

It was the night of September 26, 1983, with Colonel Petrov in charge of 200 men operating a Russian early warning bunker just south of Moscow. Petrov's job was monitoring incoming signals from satellites. He reported directly to the Russian early warning-system headquarters that reported to the Soviet leader on the possibility of launching a retaliatory attack.

It's important to note that this was a period of high tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. President Reagan was calling the Soviets the "Evil Empire." The Russian military shot down a Korean passenger jet just three weeks prior to this incident, and the U.S. and NATO were organizing a military exercise that centered on using tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Soviet leaders were worried the west was planning a nuclear attack.

In an interview with the English newspaper Daily Mail, Colonel Petrov recalls that fateful night when alarms went off and the early warning computer screens were showing a nuclear attack launched by the United States. "I felt as if I'd been punched in my nervous system. There was a huge map of the States with a U.S. base lit up, showing that the missiles had been launched."

For several minutes Petrov held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other as alarms continued blaring, red lights blinking, and the computers reporting that U.S. missiles were on their way. In the midst of this horrific chaos and terror, the prospect of the end of civilization itself, Petrov made an historic decision not to alert higher authorities, believing in his gut and hoping with all that is sacred, that contrary to what all the sophisticated equipment was reporting, this alarm was an error.

"I didn't want to make a mistake," Petrov said, "I made a decision and that was it." The Daily Mail wrote, "Had Petrov cracked and triggered a response, Soviet missiles would have rained down on U.S. cities. In turn, that would have brought a devastating response from the Pentagon."

As agonizing minutes passed, Petrov's decision proved correct. It was a computer error that signaled a U.S. attack. In the Daily Mail interview, Petrov said,"After it was over, I drank half a liter of vodka as if it were only a glass, and slept for 28 hours," and he commented, "In principle, a nuclear war could have broken out. The whole world could have been destroyed."

In our increasingly superficial societies that praise celebrities and all manner of fools as role models, many legitimate heroes go unnoticed and without reward. In the case of Colonel Petrov, he was dismissed from the Army on a pension that in succeeding years would prove nearly worthless. Petrov's superiors were reprimanded for the computer error, and in the Soviet system, all in the group were automatically subjected to the same treatment.

The Daily Mirror found Petrov's health destroyed by the terrible stress of the incident. His wife died of cancer and he lives alone in a second-floor flat in a dreary town of Fyranzino about 30 miles from Moscow.

"Once I would have liked to have been given some credit for what I did," said Petrov, "But it is to long ago and today everything is emotionally burned out inside me. I still have a bitter feeling inside my soul as I remember the way I was treated."

There have been many incidents like September 26, 1983; just how many we may never know. We do know that little has changed as thousands of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads remain on "hair-trigger alert" that could be launched in a few minutes notice destroying both countries in less than one hour -- perhaps initiated by a computer error.

To end this utter madness all nuclear warheads must be removed from "hair-trigger" alert and placed in storage with continuous inspection by both sides and the United Nations. Only then will be daily threat of nuclear incineration by an accident missile launch or miscalculation be eliminated.

In an interview with Stanislav Petrov on Dateline NBC (Nov. 12, 2000) reporter Dennis Murphy said: "I know you don't regard yourself as a hero, Colonel, but, belatedly, on behalf of the people in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, thank you for being on duty that night."

At the close of the Dateline NBC interview with Stanislav Petrov on Nov. 12, 2000, anchor Stone Phillips said, "Some of you may be wondering just how verifiable this story is. Well, a former CIA official we spoke to told us it is confirmed by Russian and other sources and that he believes it. He says Petrov's account is consistent with what we knew about the Soviet early warning system at the time and the way it was operated. He also notes that the Russian government has never challenged the story."

Long overdue, the Association of World Citizens is recognizing Stanislav Petrov and the debt we all owe him with a Distinguished World Citizen Award to be presented in a public ceremony in Moscow.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 9, 2006 12:54 PM.

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