Another day the world almost ended
Most historians agree the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was the closest we ever came to nuclear Armageddon. But one former Soviet officer knows of another episode.
For decades, men in bunkers watched their screens and warning lights every hour of every day, waiting for the Cold War to go nuclear.
This was the situation just after midnight on September 26th, 1983.
Stanislav Petrov was the Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the Soviet Union's early warning radar system in a bunker near Moscow.
Then it happened.
“When I first saw the alert message, I got up from my chair. All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic. I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences,” Petrov recalls.
The radar was showing a single missile inbound from the United States.
Now the race was on: was it real or a computer error? His boss accepted over the phone it was a likely fault. But as soon as he hung up…
“The siren went off for a second time. Giant blood-red letters appeared on our main screen, saying START. It said that four more missiles had been launched,” Petrov continues.
To Petrov, it did not add up. Any attack by the US would have been all-out to try and cripple a Soviet response. But if they were real, he had only 30 minutes to tell his superiors before the warheads hit.
“My cozy armchair felt like a red hot frying pan and my legs went limp. I felt like I couldn't even stand up. That's how nervous I was when I was taking this decision,” Petrov says.
Petrov stuck to his decision, broke a Soviet military rule by not telling his superiors, and was proved right. There were no missiles.
He never had the authority to press the button himself, but how close had the world come to nuclear war?
“At that time it seemed that our country was surrounded by enemies, but was strong enough to retaliate. The Soviet Union and the USA were too strong, and our countries had too many conflicts of interest in various parts of the world,” military analyst Vladimir Evseev says.
For Petrov, the answer is simpler.
“We've never been as close to a nuclear war, neither before, nor later on. It was the very climax,” Petrov believes.
He broke military doctrine, but possibly saved the world. Petrov has since been given an award by the association of world citizens and honored by the UN.
He says he is not a hero and was just doing his job.
Petrov now lives a quiet life in a block of flats north-east of Moscow. But although he says what happened that night in 1983 was just a footnote, it may turn out to be the most important footnote of Cold War history.