Recognize the guy in the photo? It's unlikely that you do, but I'm not going to tell you not to feel bad about it. Because that man is Stanislav Petrov, and you very likely owe him your life.
The year was 1983, and the U.S. and Soviet Union were playing for keepsies. Their on-again-off-again relationship was decidedly in the off-again setting, and the U.S. said, "Hey, you know what would be a lot of fun in an atmosphere of extreme geopolitical tension and nuclear paranoia? A war game with unprecedented realism that makes it look like we're about to nuke the shit out of Russia!"
|Shit's on fire, yo.|
The Soviet Union wasn't too fond of the idea. Especially since it kind of looked like their longtime rival was actually planning to rain hell fire onto their faces. They saw enormous forces massed on their borders. They saw fully armed nuclear bombers coming right to the edge of and sometimes slightly within their airspace before turning away. They saw unprecedented mobilization. And they started to flip a shit.
That's where Mr. Petrov comes in. Stanislav Petrov was an officer in the Soviet Air Defense Program in charge of monitoring their Early Warning System. On September 26, 1983, said system blipped. A blip on your "We're All Gonna Die" radar is literally the last thing you ever want to see in that situation. But there it was. A blip headed straight for the Motherland.
|OH GOD, DEFINITELY DO NOT WANT.|
Stanislav the Manislav, being a reasonable man(islav), figured that a single blip could easily be a defect. "Something must be tripping up the system," he told himself. So he decided not to report it. As he came to that decision, four more blips appeared. So now there were five possible missiles headed into town to get rip-roaring, rowdy, and...you know...nuclear.
At this point, Stanislav neglected his duty. He declined to report the attack. It was still a small number, and the reliability of the system had been questioned before, so he took it upon himself to not worry the top brass with it. It's a goddamn good thing, too, because the top brass had an itchy trigger finger and an unhealthy dose of panic at that moment. If they had any reason to believe the U.S. was launching a nuclear strike, they would not hesitate to end life on Earth.
Luckily, Mr. Petrov was 100% correct. Sunlight was in perfect alignment with a few high altitude clouds and the satellites used to track potential missiles, which caused the false alarm. After a brief moment of panic on November 9th, when Able Archer 83 simulated a movement to Defcon 1 (meaning imminent nuclear strike), NATO forces packed it all in and went back to their regularly scheduled mild panic.
As for Petrov, he was removed to a less sensitive position. A lateral move, you'll be happy to know. He was neither punished nor rewarded for his actions, but his direct superiors praised him and said that his actions were "correct."
Many years later, after the story was made public, Petrov was much more justly rewarded. The Association of World Citizens gave him their World Citizen Award. Twice. And a documentary was made about him, aptly titled The Man Who Saved the World.
Because he did that.