The Two Soviets Who Saved The World

In 1961, the United States undertook a series of unsuccessful campaigns in Cuba, attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro and his regime. These campaigns -- for example, the Bay of Pigs invasion -- ultimately failed. The Soviet Union, Cuba's staunch ally at the time, reacted by working with Castro to build a secret nuclear weapons site on the island. Cuba is a stone's throw away from the Continental United States, and had the base been completed, any nuclear missiles there would have been able to hit American soil.

On October 12, 1962, a U.S. recon plane captured images of the base being built, sending the White House (and the American people) into panic. The U.S. created a military quarantine of Cuba, denying the Soviets the ability to bring in any weapons, and insisting that the base be dismantled. The Soviets publicly balked, and anyone alive at the time (and old enough to remember) needs no refresher: the world was on the brink of nuclear war. But roughly two weeks later, on October 28, 1962, the two nations came to an agreement, staving off a result the world could not afford to have occur.

Vasili Arkhipov

But if it weren't for a Soviet naval officer named Vasili Arkhipov (pictured above), there is a good chance none of us would be here today. The day before the Americans and Soviets found a middle ground, Arkhipov was aboard a submarine patrolling the waters near Cuba. American naval forces surrounded the submarine and began dropping depth charges -- a tactic the American navy used to get submarines to surface, and not one intended to destroy the (assumed to be) enemy submarine. Unfortunately, the submarine's captain either forgot about this tactic or was unaware of it, and -- underwater, unable to contract Moscow -- believed war had broken out. Soviet protocol at the time allowed for the use of nuclear torpedoes if the three highest ranking sailors on the ship believed it proper. The captain and a third officer concluded it was. Arkhipov, the second in command, objected -- and, thankfully, prevailed. The ship surfaced without starting World War III.

Over twenty years later, nuclear war was barely averted once again. By the early 1980s, the Soviets had developed an early warning system which aimed to detect an incoming nuclear missile attack. The system allowed the Soviets to, if need be, respond with a retaliatory missile attack. Without such a system, the incoming missiles would likely destroy or disable the Soviet arsenal before it could be deployed. The protocol was simple: if the monitoring station discovered missiles incoming, the leadership there was to notify its superiors. The powers that be would then decide whether the U.S.S.R. should launch its own strike, and, given the tensions at the time, it is likely they would have -- with a hair trigger, at that.

On September 26, 1983, the monitoring station detected an incoming missile. And then, it detected four more. Stanislav Petrov, the lieutenant colonel and ranking officer on site, did something incredible: he unilaterally decided that the monitoring equipment had erred, and he declined to report the "attack" to the Kremlin. Petrov based this belief on a few key factors: one, the equipment was very new and believed to be a bit buggy (although not to this degree); and two, Petrov was trained to believe that a U.S. strike would involve hundreds of warheads, not five.

Petrov turned out to be correct. The satellites were not functioning properly and the "missiles" were phantoms. Ground-based systems, a few minutes after the satellites erred, saw nothing, corroborating Petrov's belief. But Petrov did not view himself a hero. Later in life, he'd say that he was just doing his job and, in fact (and perhaps too literally), he actually did nothing at all.


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  • 3

    Well goddamn that was a close one. When will the world learn, you can't hug with nuclear arms.

    I am sure there are many more events that we don't know about
    - bigredkev September 6, 2011, 5:17 pm
  • 2

    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.

    • Math
    • September 7, 2011, 2:51 am
    TL;DR can you summerize that? (:
    - BlurrySours September 7, 2011, 4:18 am
    An excellent addition to the post, thanks Math +1 :)
    - bigredkev September 7, 2011, 4:50 am
    He did nothing, got totally wasted in record time, then slept it of for over a day!
    - Math September 7, 2011, 8:17 am
    Sweet! :D
    - BlurrySours September 7, 2011, 9:44 am
  • 1

    Hey guys and gals, thanks for the uprates. Please dont forget to leave a comment so that I can uprate for you in return :)

  • 1

    we have gone past that point and now point our missiles at the crazy countries that make us uneasy.

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