Thirty years ago today on September 26th, 1983, the quick wits of Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov may have helped the world avoid World War III.
Petrov worked in a secret bunker near Moscow and was responsible for monitoring an early-warning system that used satellites to detect missile attacks. During that fateful night 30 years ago, the alarms sounded. One of the satellites signaled to Moscow that the U.S. had launched five ballistic missiles at Russia.
“All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders – but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan,”Petrov told BBC.
Petrov had a decision to make: Launch an attack back, or trust his instincts?
“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov told The Washington Post in 1999. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”
Petrov’s rationale to his superiors was that if the U.S. were to attack, it would be with much more than five missiles, and he was right. Investigators would later determine that the “missile attack” was actually sunlight on high-altitude clouds aligning with the satellite view of a U.S. missile base.
One reason Petrov avoided a impulsive reaction? He didn’t fully trust the technology that sent the reading. Petrov had been assigned to the satellite warning system upon its inception in the 1970s, but said many years later that he knew from experience that the system was “raw” and rushed into service with many flaws.
Petrov was reprimanded for errors in his logbook and not following protocol, but was able to speak more extensively about the incident after the Soviet Union collapsed. Petrov — who retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel –now lives in a small town near Moscow.