From around 1947 to 1991, the unceasing tensions of the Cold War ensured that the militaries of both the USSR and the United States maintained a high-alert, with both sides prepared to react to any offensive through a tidy and responsive chain-of-command. A major part of this response unit was the many strategically-stationed classified nuclear missile silos. Within each of these individual stations were people who were prepared to push a button at a moments notice that would ultimately result in the death of thousands or more. One of those people was Stanislav Petrov, lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces.
On September 23, 1983 Petrov was manning his station as usual in the Serpukhov-15 bunker outside of Moscow. Tensions were running even higher than normal. Three weeks before, the Soviet Union had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 after it had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people on board died, including a U.S. Congressman.
Around midnight, Petrov’s systems lit up, reporting an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile. According to his training it was his job to immediately report it to his superiors, who would then initiate the chain-of-command for a counter-attack. But he hesitated.
The one incoming missile seemed odd to him. He believed that if the U.S. were to attack that they would do it in force. He expected to see hundreds of missiles rather than a single lonely projectile soaring over the ocean. He also knew that the system was new and, in his personal view, not yet wholly trustworthy. He decided that it was a malfunction and did not report it, despite the enormous implications of being mistaken. He waited anxiously for the confirmation that it was in fact a false alarm, later stating he was never sure that the alarm was erroneous. After some time, the warning cleared. There was no missile.
Later in the early morning hours, Petrov’s systems reported 4 more incoming missiles. Based on his earlier experience and the again low amount of incoming missiles reported, he once again dismissed the warning. He was again correct. It was later discovered that the false missiles were caused by a rare alignment of high altitude clouds and the Soviet early warning system satellites. The error was fixed permanently by adjusting a satellite’s orbit.
Petrov said that he felt that his civilian training helped him make the right decision. His colleagues were all professional soldiers with purely military training and, following instructions, would have reported a missile strike if they had been on his shift. This almost certainly would have resulted in a response and a drastically different outcome.
The incident, like many others during the era, was kept confidential and did not become publicly known until the 1990s. Since then, Petrov has been honored by several organizations for his role in preventing a nuclear disaster, including receiving the Dresden Prize, although he asserts that the U.S.S.R neither rewarded nor punished him for his actions at the time. According to Petrov, this was because the incident embarrassed his superiors, so that if he had been officially rewarded, they would have had to be punished.