Today, September 26 is a very special day. It’s the anniversary of the day the world coud have, possibly should have, died, but didn’t.
In September, 1983 I was just starting my senior year of high school in Olympia, Washington. September 26 was a Monday that year. The start of a new school week. I’d probably gone to a football game the Friday night before. My friends and I went to all the football games. It was probably a fairly normal day. I don’t remember it. But, it was the day the world nearly ended.
Recently there was a crackpot who announced that the world was ending in September of this year. I think he said it would end on September 23. It got a fair amount of coverage in the news. It’s a curiousity piece. One radio host called the “researcher” the week before looking for an interview. The man said he was too busy and would be available the following week. Yes, the week after he was predicting the world would end.
As you undoubtedly noticed, the world didn’t end last weekend. Never fear, the researcher announced that his calculations were off and actually the world is going to be over in October. You can probably set up an appointment for an interview with him for some time in November.
Growing up in Western Washington, during the cold war, we didn’t worry much about the threat of nuclear bombs. Within 100 miles of my house we had
- Fort Lewis Army Base
- McCord Air Force Base
- Bangetor Sub Base
- Boeing Air Craft company
- Everett Naval Base
- Bremerton Navy Ship Yard
- Hanford Nuclear Facility
Puget Sound was a target rich environment. And we were the closest portion of the US mainland to the Soviet Union. If there was ever a war, we would be the first ones to die. We’d never even know it started.
We didn’t dwell on it, but we also never really forgot it either. In fact, I remember years later after the USSR had collapsed, Russian president Boris Yeltsin gave a speech in Seattle. He announced that for the first time in decades, there were no Russian missiles pointed at Seattle. The Russians had set the default target zone for all their missiles to be the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was like being told that the person with a gun to your head took their finger off the trigger.
But, back in 1983, the USSR was strong and tensions were high. Early in September the Soviets had shot down a Korean air liner. Two hundred and sixty people including a US Congressman died. Europe and the United States were threatening retaliation.
In the early morning of September 26, 1983 it appeared we were going to extract our revenge. At least that’s the way it appeared in a Soviet missile defense center just south of Moscow. Alarms went off indicating that the United States had launched five nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union.
The man in charge, Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant-colonel in Soviet Union’s secret service wasn’t even supposed to work that night. He was filling in for a sick colleague. He was presented with the awesome responsibility of recommending to his superiors if the USSR should retaliate. Petrov literally held the fate of the world in his hand. Training would dictate that he recommend that the USSR launch its missiles. If it had, the world as we know it would have ended. And I would have died in the first minutes.
But, Petrov didn’t fire his missiles. He called his superiors and indicated that the alarm was false. How did he know?
He didn’t. He guessed. Afterward he said he estimated he had a 50/50 chance of getting it right. As the seconds drug into minutes and the minutes drug into eternity, it became clear that Petrov was correct. The alarm was false. High clouds had confused the new Soviet satelite system into thinking it was seeing missiles.
For his part, Petrov said that he had a gut feeling that it wasn’t an attack. Why would the Americans launch only 5 missiles when the had an arsenal of thousands?
It was not unlike the scene in the the movie War Games where Matthew Brodrick inadvertanetly tricked a government computer into thinking the Soviets had launched an attack on Las Vegas and Seattle. We watch the tense moments as the military officials wait to hear if the attacks were false or not.
Except in the case of Petrov, it wasn’t a movie. It was real. He is literally the man that saved the world. He never considered himself a hero, claiming he was just doing his job. However, before his passing away back in May of this year, he did point out,
They are lucky it was me on duty that night.
We were all lucky that Stanislav Petrov was on duty that night. So, as you go through what will hopefully be a normal Tuesday, take a moment to reflect on the significance of September 26, the day the world didn’t end. And say a special prayer of thanks for Stanislav Petrov, the man who saved the world.
Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.
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