In a Nutshell
On September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was left with a decision that could stop or cause a nuclear war. Petrov had to decide quickly if the Soviet Union would act upon an alarm that had sounded stating five missiles had been launched from an American base. Petrov knew that his decision would start World War III. But he also knew that it would be a false alarm.
The Whole Bushel
The time of war can be a scary time for anyone, whether you are a citizen or protecting citizens. Stanislav Petrov had several of these scary moments while he was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces during the Cold War. The Cold War, which was between the United States and the Soviet Union, started after World War II and went on until the Soviet collapsed in 1991. One of the scariest moments Stanislav ever discussed later in his life was when he heard the warning alarm on September 26, 1983. The alarm notified Colonel Petrov that an American base had launched five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles. Years later, Petrov stated about the alarm, “For 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock. We needed to know what next?”
And what next was exactly what Petrov focused on. But still, his next steps had to be planned quickly as there was only about a 25-minute space between a launch and an explosion. Furthermore, Petrov had to be careful of his next steps because it could mean a nuclear war. The first step Petrov had to do was inform the Soviet leaders of the attack. The leaders wanted to retaliate and send off their own missiles to the United States of America. However, Petrov did not want to be the cause of the third World War, so he told the leaders that he had received more information and the attack was false.
Petrov would not truly find out it was a false alarm until minutes later when nothing happened. About six months later, Petrov and his team discovered why the alarm sounded when America did not launch any missiles. It was because Soviet satellites had mistaken the reflection of the sun through clouds as an American missile launch.
Later in his life, Petrov admitted that when he talked to the Soviet leaders he did not know it was a false alarm, he was just guessing. He felt the chances of a real nuclear attack at that moment was 50-50. Furthermore, Petrov knew that a retaliation from the Soviet could start a nuclear war, especially because tensions were already high between America and the Soviet Union. About three weeks before the false alarm a Soviet jet had accidentally killed 269 civilians when they shot down an airplane. America became hostile towards the Soviet Union after this action because inside the airplane were 62 American citizens.
Years later, Petrov stated in an interview it was his training and intuition that caused him to report the alarm as false. He said he had been told if America was going to start a nuclear war, it would be a fierce attack. The alarm system only noted that five missiles had been launched, which gave Petrov a funny feeling that it was not a true nuclear attack. Stanislav Petrov passed away on May 19, 2017, at the age of 77. Petrov will forever be known in the history books as the Soviet lieutenant whose gut feeling kept the world from entering a nuclear war.