Individuals can change the world. In 1983, Stanislav Petrov used logic to think rationally and avoid a nuclear war that would have changed the course of history.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Brittany: Hi Connor.
Connor: Hi, Brittany.
Brittany: So, we’ve told a lot of stories about individuals making a huge difference in this world, and I kind of wanna continue that today, but I wanna tell the story of one man who actually saved the world from nuclear war and literally narrowly avoided us having global destruction. I mean, the world may have never been the same. So his name was Stanislav Petrov, and on September 26th, 1983, he didn’t even mean to, but he saved the world from war. And I’m just gonna jump right into it. Connor, I know you know this story as well, but first I was wondering if you could give us a little explanation because I’m gonna use the phrase Cold War. What is the Cold War? What was the Cold War?
Connor: So, you know, a typical war is there’s fighting and conflict and shooting and bombs and people dying left and right, and, the Cold War. This is the nickname for basically hostilities that did not involve death. so there’s a lot of spying and espionage and, you know, frustrating plans. You’re trying to steal, you know, plans. You’re trying to gain intelligence on someone else. You’re, you’re, creating a lot of weapons. So at this time, it’s a nuclear arms race. And so, you know, Russia or the Soviet Union and the United States are, each, you know, creating tons of, nuclear-armed missiles in case the other country decides to strike. And America’s working with allies all over the world to put nuclear weapons in different countries so that they’re closer to the Soviet Union and they can respond. And so it’s the escalation of conflict, right? Without like actually having troops on the ground, just openly fighting. And, the problem is, it’s kind of like a pressure cooker, right? Or think for the kids. Yeah, you’ve seen those YouTube videos of like Coke and Mentos, right? And so.
Brittany: Wait what?
Connor: Are you kidding me? You don’t know.
Brittany: No, I don’t.
Connor: Oh my gosh. All the listeners out there rolling their eyes, Britney, you’ve missed like this important cultural thing in the past years. When you take a bottle of Coke and you put Mintos in it just erupts. And, and, and just like massively shoot, like you have a two-liter bottle and you throw a bunch of Mintos in there. What it turns into like a bottle rocket. You need to go look up on YouTube.
Brittany: I’ll put it on the show notes and I’m gonna try it.
Connor: Yeah. Oh man, this, yeah, we gotta try it. That’s when it gets really fun. And so I think of it like the Cold War, like that you threw a bunch of Mentos in a Coke bottle, you put the cap on really big. So there’s all this pressure inside that’s just needing to get out. And, if you don’t create a release for that pressure if you don’t open the cap, it’s gonna explode because it’s gonna get to a point where the tension is such that you can’t hold it together. And so that was the danger, that was the fear with this arms race, this cold war, with the Soviet Union, was that just this proliferation, the spread of nuclear, weapons would lead to someone pulling the trigger. And so then if someone pulls the trigger, then the other side is gonna pull the trigger. And then, you know, world War III with all these nuclear weapons flying all over.
Brittany: And the Cold War lasted a long, long time. I mean, decades of just like, just back and forth, like, oh, well, we’re gonna bomb you, we’re gonna bomb you. And then it was, I mean, for most of our parents, and you and I really, Connor, we grew up at the very tail end of it. And that’s about when this story takes place. So the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. And I hate to say, think of it as Russia, cuz I know that that’s different. it was very, it was more complicated than that, but it’s in the Russian area. So in 1983, the Cold War would come to an end about six years later ish. but it wasn’t quite over yet. So that’s when this guy Stanislav Petrov. He was working on the night ship at his job, and he was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s air defense forces. So his whole job was monitoring the country’s satellites looking for possible nuclear weapons, you know, being launched by us, by the United States. So there was really nothing particularly unusual about his night shift. And then all of a sudden he is sitting there and the worst thing that you think can happens. And that’s the alarm begins to sound right at dawn, right as the sun is coming up. Now, if the alarm goes off, that indicates that like America is starting a war. I mean, this is basically saying that they have launched nuclear weapons. I said it wrong. Nuclear, nuclear weapons. And I think they’re actually called intercontinental ballistic missiles if we’re being, technical.
Brittany: Yes. And so, basically, the alarm went off saying that they had launched at least five. The alarm wouldn’t go off unless there was at least five launched. So this meant that it was Petrov’s job to now sound the alarm that would initiate retaliation. So essentially it was his job to sound the alarm and then fire back.
Connor: Oh, man. Couldn’t you imagine?
Connor: So here’s what he said, looking back on this. He said he was explaining what happened. He said, the siren, how old? But I just sat there for a few seconds staring at the big backlit red screen with the word launch on it. you know, so again, like imagine being there, the fate of the world, you know, so many people is in you like pushing this button. Your, your whole job is making sure that you, you know, prevent this thing from happening or you strike back if there’s a nuclear threat. So here he is working on the night shift, of course, you know, you’re on the night shift, it’s just you’re playing cards, you know or in solitaire or, you know, scrolling on your phone in the modern day. You didn’t have that back then. And, so then boom, this alarm goes off. And, you know, this happened at an interesting point during the Cold War. it wouldn’t come to an end in a few years, but you know, by no means was it o over earlier that same month, things had escalated when the Soviet Union had shot down a commercial airliner from Korea that had flown into its airspace. And so this incident resulted in the deaths of 269 people, including a congressman from the United States, from Georgia name was Larry McDonald.
Brittany: I have never heard of him, I’m not gonna lie,
Connor: And yeah, he was actually a liberty-minded guy for me.
Brittany: Really? That’s okay. I have to look more into him.
Connor: And I think Ron Paul is the one who kind of first mentioned him and I, so I looked into him and so these tensions between these two global superpowers, I mean, a congressman was just killed by the Soviet Union. And so all of this had recently happened. And so now of course your Petrov sitting in front of a screen that’s blinking launch, waiting for you to hit the button. And these, so that you can imagine the tension was probably palpable. Like you he could probably feel the tension and like, what would you do in that scenario?
Brittany: Oh man, I don’t even know. But one thing that’s really important to remember too is the US wasn’t really like, we’re like a superpower now. And for better or for worse, a lot of that’s cause we invaded other countries. But before World War II, we weren’t the super, you know, we weren’t the United States. We weren’t this big superpower. But after World War II, it was us and what’s now the USSR, right? So this is really a battle between these two global superpowers. And so it was literally like a fight to the death. And as Petrov recalled, cuz here he is sitting here going, what are we gonna do? And one difference between the United States and the USSR is we encourage a little bit more individualism. Now, not in the army, you’re still supposed to follow your orders and do what your superiors say. But, you know, Petrov said, you know, there was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. 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 reach for my phone, raise the direct line to our top commanders, but I couldn’t move. And I love this part, he says, I felt like I was sitting on top of a hot frying pan. So, I always thought that was a good analogy and I don’t, I wanna know if he said that in English, if it was translated. I’ve always been curious, but so as Connor said, you know, Petrov have no idea that this was gonna happen, He was just, you know, playing cards, whatever he was doing. But he did know after the alarm sounded that he had to act fast. I mean, this was one of those moments where it feels, it probably feels like an eternity cuz you’re sitting here like, oh my goodness, the fate of the world is on my shoulders. So he had to make a split excuse me, a split-second decision that was going to impact the entire world.
Connor: Well, and luckily for us, he kind of went with his gut, which I mean, it just means like, go with your instinct or maybe your conscience. And, I think we all have times like this then maybe our conscious is telling us something is a little bit off and, you know, he was feeling like he should not sound the alarm yet, which he could have got in a ton of trouble for. Yeah. I mean, can you imagine, and we’ll find out in the story why, you know, that isn’t quite the case. But you know, had he been discovered, had people found out how he was waiting, he could have been really, really reprimanded and punished, especially in the Soviet Union of all places.
Brittany: Yeah. Not a great place to break the rules.
Connor: No. And you know, this technology, I mean, think you’re back, you know, decades ago this technology, the computers were, were still, fairly new, like newly developed. This wasn’t very advanced equipment. And Petrov, he’s sure that there’s gotta be some kind of kinks to be worked out. Like it’s not a perfect system. And so in his training, he was taught that any strike from the United States would most likely come as like a full-fledged attack, like across the board, you know, unleash all the weapons. But the satellite system was only showing a handful of missiles. And so this didn’t really constitute like all out warfare, right? And so what if the satellite was incorrect? Was he willing to call in a superior and start a nuclear war over a system error? So he was a little bit doubtful, I guess.
Brittany: But then you also have to ask, what if his gut was wrong, right? what if this attack everyone had been fearing happened and Petrov only had, you know, 20 minutes, probably less than that to act before the missile actually struck? Not before he had to tell superiors, but before the missile was like down on the ground, people, dying. He had 20 minutes to either save people or have people be killed at his hands. So like I said before, even though it was only a few minutes where he had to decide, I can’t even imagine how long those few minutes felt. Yeah. Because he’s sitting there like, oh my goodness, what do I do? So he was torn, right? He had to figure out what he was going to do, but he had this really rare ability, to not act in haste, which means to not act, you know, actively to something, to not respond really quickly, to actually kind of sit and think clearly. And we talked about that with John D. Rockefeller on an earlier episode that he was really good at sitting and thinking things out before acting. And as it turns out, he was right to do that because there had been an error in the new system. And it wasn’t even a handful of missiles that were launched. There were no weapons at all launched. So these missiles were not coming at all. It was all an error. So a weapons control expert, his name was Jeffrey Lewis, he gave an interview where he was commenting on this whole situation, they call it the nuclear war that almost was, and he said Petrov just had this feeling in his gut that it wasn’t right, it was five missiles, it didn’t seem like enough. So even though by all protocols he had been trained to follow, he should absolutely have reported up to the chain of command. And, you know, we should be talking about the great nuclear war of 1983, if any of us survived. But it didn’t happen.
Connor: You know, we’ve talked a good bit about the importance of questioning authority. And as you point out Brittany in the military, like you don’t really get to do that. And if you do, like you’re in a lot of trouble cuz it’s very much this expectation of like unquestioning obedience in a lot of ways. you know, and this is a good example though. Notwithstanding, he’s in the, you know, USSR military, he’s still kind of maybe not questioning authorities so much as questioning, the process, you know, and trying to be very sure about his actions. It’s not like someone was sitting there barking orders and saying, report this right now. Right? And then he’s not doing it. Although in the past they had said, look, you’re supposed to report this if it happens. And so in that sense, he is, you know, still kind of questioning authority. And he could have gotten, as we said, in a lot of trouble for not following orders and reporting this. but like literally the fate of like millions, probably tens, hundreds of millions of people was, was on this one guy working a night shift.
Brittany: No pressure.
Connor: No pressure, you know, and he said he was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education. He said, my colleagues were all professional soldiers. They were taught to give and obey orders. And so he came from a different background, a civilian background where there’s a bit more independence and critical thinking maybe, right? And his colleagues, he, he’s saying, in my view, Petrov is saying here, like, had it been anyone else in that chair, they would’ve called it up and they would’ve, you know, acted in perceived retaliation. In other words, they wanted to retaliate, they wanted to fight back and, you know, send missiles over to America. But that would’ve actually been the start of the war because the system was wrong. And so, you know, nuclear war, I mean obviously very serious, every war is serious, but, you know, the destruction that nuclear war brings could have killed just so many people. Global warfare, you know, it would’ve been just horrendous. And so, in my view, Brittany, what makes this incident so extraordinary is that there are only two incidences where America got close to nuclear war. The first was something called the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s. you know, people were expecting the world to Fortunately it didn’t.
Brittany: Literally, like people were walking around just assuming the world was gonna end. We might have to do a whole episode just on that.
Connor: Yeah. And, so here’s the other and so you gotta wonder what it would’ve been like in these scenarios and how close we came and how fortunate it is that this ended the way it did. And so we gotta sing Petrov’s praises cuz man, had it not been for him, you know, we might not be alive right now.
Brittany: Yeah. He even said in an interview and so he died I believe in 2015, or no, 2017. He died pretty recently. But before he died, he said in an interview, they were lucky it was me on the shift that night. And I think he was absolutely right cuz I can’t imagine you and I might not even be here right now, which means our listeners may not be here. So very grateful.
Connor: I think there are a few lessons we can take away from this. You know, it shows the importance, again, of questioning authority, following your conscience. you know, had he followed orders, I mean, the world would look very different and much worse today. But I think this story’s also interesting because it shows that one person can make a huge impact and that you never know when that’s gonna be. Right? Like, the dude is working a random night shift when I’m sure all the nights before were immensely boring, you know, and you think that, oh, I gotta check in at my night job. Here we go again. You know, you never know when you’re gonna be like, find yourself in a situation where you have to make a split-second decision. Yeah. When you have to draw upon your character and your knowledge and your conscience and make a critical decision. And so I think that shows the importance of being prepared, right? Developing these good character, traits and skills and knowledge so that when the time comes for whatever it is in your life, who knows that you’ll be ready. we’ll link, to Petrov’s story a little bit more, so that you can learn more about this guy, and some interesting stuff. Tuttletwins.com/podcast. Make sure you guys check it out. Thanks as always, for being subscribed. And until next time, Brittany, we’ll talk to you later.
Brittany: Talk to you later.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download