Last Monday the world learned about the death of a man who, by keeping a cool head in a most critical situation, probably averted a disaster that, had it occurred, would have made not only the crimes of Nazi Germany and the whole of World War II, but arguably all collective violence in the history of mankind, pale by comparison. The New York Times tells his story as follows:
A 44-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, he was a few hours into his shift as the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret command center outside Moscow where the Soviet military monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States, when alarms went off.
Computers warned that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base.
“For 15 seconds, we were in a state of shock,” he later recalled. “We needed to understand, ‘What’s next?’ ”
The alarm sounded during one of the tensest periods in the Cold War. Three weeks earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines commercial flight after it crossed into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board, including a congressman from Georgia. President Ronald Reagan had rejected calls for freezing the arms race, declaring the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The Soviet leader, Yuri V. Andropov, was obsessed by fears of an American attack.
Colonel Petrov was at a pivotal point in the decision-making chain. His superiors at the warning-system headquarters reported to the general staff of the Soviet military, which would consult with Mr. Andropov on launching a retaliatory attack.
After five nerve-racking minutes — electronic maps and screens were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, trying to absorb streams of incoming information — Colonel Petrov decided that the launch reports were probably a false alarm.
As he later explained, it was a gut decision, at best a “50-50” guess, based on his distrust of the early-warning system and the relative paucity of missiles that were launched.
Colonel Petrov died at 77 on May 19 in Fryazino, a Moscow suburb, where he lived alone on a pension. The death was not widely reported at the time. It was confirmed by his son, Dmitri, according to Karl Schumacher, a political activist who, after learning in 1998 of Colonel Petrov’s Cold War role, traveled to Russia to meet him and remained a friend. The cause was hypostatic pneumonia.
Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was born on Sept. 7, 1939, near Vladivostok, Russia. His father had been a fighter pilot during World War II; his mother was a nurse. He studied at the Kiev Higher Engineering Radio-Technical College of the Soviet Air Force.
After joining the Air Defense Forces, he rose quickly through the ranks; he was assigned to the early-warning system at its inception in the early 1970s.
Historians who have analyzed the episode say that Colonel Petrov’s calm analysis helped avert catastrophe.
As the computer systems in front of him changed their alert from “launch” to “missile strike,” and insisted that the reliability of the information was at the “highest” level, Colonel Petrov had to figure out what to do.
The estimate was that only 25 minutes would elapse between launch and detonation.
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” he told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. 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.”
As the tension in the command center rose — as many as 200 pairs of eyes were trained on Colonel Petrov — he made the decision to report the alert as a system malfunction.
“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he told The Washington Post. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”
Colonel Petrov attributed his judgment to both his training and his intuition. He had been told that a nuclear first strike by the Americans would come in the form of an overwhelming onslaught.
“When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he told The Post.
Moreover, Soviet ground-based radar installations — which search for missiles rising above the horizon — did not detect an attack, although they would not have done so for several minutes after launch.
Colonel Petrov was at first praised for his calm, but in an investigation that followed, he was asked why he had failed to record everything in his logbook. “Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand,” he replied.
He received a reprimand.
The false alarm was apparently set off when the satellite mistook the sun’s reflection off the tops of clouds for a missile launch. The computer program that was supposed to filter out such information had to be rewritten.
Colonel Petrov said the system had been rushed into service in response to the United States’ introduction of a similar system. He said he knew it was not 100 percent reliable.
“We are wiser than the computers,” he said in a 2010 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. “We created them.”
How many people would have died if Petrov had reported incoming American missiles and the USSR had thereupon launched a nuclear attack against the United States?
According to current predictions of the Consequences of a large nuclear war, a nuclear exchange in which
• "2600 U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons on high-alert are launched (in 2 to 3 minutes) at targets in the U.S., Europe and Russia (and perhaps at other targets which are considered to have strategic value)", and
• "Some fraction of the remaining 7600 deployed and operational U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads/weapons are also launched and detonated in retaliation for the initial attacks"
would put 150 million tons of smoke into the stratosphere, leading to a nuclear winter in which:
• "Unable to grow food, most humans would starve to death",
• "A mass extinction event would occur, similar to what happened 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out following a large asteroid impact with Earth (70% of species became extinct, including all animals greater than 25 kilograms in weight)", and
• "Even humans living in shelters equipped with many years worth of food, water, energy, and medical supplies would probably not survive in the hostile post-war environment."
If these predictions - made on the basis of current nuclear arsenals, which are but a fraction of those that were in place in 1983 - are accurate, then Petrov’s decision may well have saved all of humanity.
Even according to a more "optimistic" projection, whose author noted (as far as I know before publication of the studies underlying the predictions in Consequences of a large nuclear war) that "the most severe predictions concerning nuclear winter have now been evaluated and discounted by most of the scientific community", a global thermonuclear war involving the United States, the USSR and China would have killed about 400,000,000 people on the first day, 5 August 1988. 450,000,000 people or 9.47% of the world’s surviving population would have died from injuries, fallout, exposure, starvation and disease over the next two months, and about 1 billion people or 23.26% of the world’s surviving population would have died from these causes over a subsequent period of ca. 9 months, bringing the total death toll by 31 August 1989 to about 1,850,000,000 out of 5,150,000,000 people, or 35.92 % of the world’s prewar population (see Wm. Robert Johnston, "The Effects of a Global Thermonuclear War", and my article Germs vs. guns, or death from mass violence in perspective).
Taking into account the above, and assuming that the USSR would have launched a nuclear attack on the United States if Petrov had reported what the early warning system told him (which, given the tensions between the superpowers at the time, would have been a likely possibility), Petrov’s decision may have saved the lives of about 1.85 billion people (plus the lives of countless people who would have died prematurely in a disrupted world, mainly from starvation and disease, in later years after the nuclear doomsday), if not the lives of all human beings on the planet. Either way, it seems fair to count Petrov among the few people who have "really saved the world".
The number of excess deaths in a nuclear war and (especially) its aftermath, according to Johnston's comparatively "optimistic" projection, would have exceeded the total number of deaths in all wars of human history and prehistory, which I estimated here. Assuming that about 1.64 billion out of about 100.6 billion deaths were caused by wars (including atrocities committed in wartime as well as famine and disease brought on or intensified by wars), wars accounted for about 1.6 % of all deaths between 50,000 BC and AD 2011. And even the 1.64 billion order of magnitude may be too high.