Stanislav Petrov: The Forgotten Man who Saved the World From Nuclear War

By Jack Parkos | United States

Can one man save the world? Could just one action by one person prevent the downfall of human civilization? This simply sounds like a fictional story like Superman. It’s unrealistic. But one man, Stanislav Petrov, was able to do this. Yet, he is not talked about in schools or mentioned in history textbooks. The average person may not know the name and face of “The man who single-handedly saved the world from nuclear war”.

Who Was Petrov?

Stanislav Petrov, son of a WW2 pilot, joined the Soviet Air Defense Forces in 1972. Stanislav became lieutenant colonel and was stationed at the Serpukhov-15 base near Moscow during the early 1980s, his duty was monitor early nuclear detectors (called Oko), and warning his superiors of an attack.  This was during one of the most dangerous periods of human history: the Cold War. There had been decades of tension between the capitalist West and communist East. The Soviets and Americans were in an intense near-nuclear war with the fear of annihilation on everyone’s minds. Both sides were waiting for the other to attack.

The Incident

Many people know the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not as many know that on September 26th, 1983, we were just as close. On September 26th, 1983, Oko picked up five USAF minutemen ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missiles) heading towards the Soviet Union. As the alarms went off and panic ensued, Stanislav was left with a choice: to call his superiors warning of an attack, or to dismiss it as a false alarm. Stanislav was skeptical of the new technology and thought it to have many flaws. He had a gut feeling the alarm was false. In a 1999 interview with the Washington Post he recalled thinking:

“When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles, you can do little damage with just five missiles.”

He figured an attack would be much larger and would have the goal of obliterating the Soviets. He made the final decision that it was a false alarm and checked for computer error, rather than reporting the incoming attack. He was correct, Oko had picked up by sunlight on high altitude clouds.

Following the incident, Stanislav was interrogated by higher-ups as to what happened. Although initially receiving credit, he was scolded for not properly documenting all the paperwork amidst the chaos. He defended himself saying:

“Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand”

Thus, he was never rewarded for his actions. The improper filling of paperwork was enough to lose credit for saving the world. Stanislav also claimed he received no reward because his reward would result in the punishment of the scientists who developed Oso. He claimed he was made a scapegoat. Stanislav left the military in 1983.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, his story was told. He was honored at the United Nations in 2006, winning the World Citizen Award. Also winning the Dresden Peace Prize in Germany in 2013. Also having a documentary film made about him called “The Man Who Saved the World”.

What If He Wasn’t There?

Stanislav has claimed he doesn’t consider himself a hero, but rather just a man doing his job. He has also stated, however, that they were lucky he was there that day.

Indeed, we all are lucky. Had he not been there, it is likely everyone reading this article wouldn’t be alive or would never have been born.

Assume he wasn’t there. Instead, another officer on duty that day who was not skeptical of the detectors. What would have happened? It is highly possible this officer may have reported the attack to higher up officials-who were very paranoid about an attack. They were not afraid to retaliate. They would have likely retaliated with a nuclear strike. The United States would then pick up an attack coming there way and retaliate, starting World War Three and a nuclear holocaust. This would likely be the end of civilization.

Indeed, this man is a hero. He was doing his job and his job saved civilization. JFK and Reagan get much credit for getting us through the Cold War, but Petrov is not given the praise he deserves. He deserves to be taught about in schools. Moreover, it is an interesting concept in the idea of how important and powerful the individual is.

Petrov died May 19th, 2017, but his impact on the world will never die. It is important that we keep his story alive. For his story saved all stories that happened after that fateful day in 1983.


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