The men who saved the world

In 1983 the nuclear balance was 35.000 rockets for the Soviet Union and 23.000 for the US. At that point our planet came terrifyingly close to a nuclear holocaust. The Soviet Union’s missile attack warning system displayed with “high reliability” that a US intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched and was headed toward the Soviet Union. First, it was just one missile, but then another and yet another. Officer Stanislav Petrov, this night in charge of the rocket station in the outskirts of Moscow, had to decide: Fire or not.

The protocol was first to report the incident to his superior who probably would follow his checklist and order fire. But Petrov doubted the authenticity of the alarm and did not report the incoming strike. He had been a part of the design of the alarm system and was well educated in ballistics and mathematics and concluded that they were seeing a false alarm. And he was right, the system mistook the sun’s reflection for a missile. By not reporting the incident, i.e., not obeying strict orders, Petrov prevented a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union.

Petrov was neither punished nor promoted for not following the protocol, but later he was honoured at the United Nations, received the Dresden Peace Prize, and was profiled in the documentary The Man Who Saved the World. “I was just at the right place at the right time” he told the film makers. He died in May 2017 at the age of 77 without any parade.

Another hero was the Soviet navy officer Vasili Arkhipov. In 1962 he was in his nuclear submarine near Cuba when US naval forces started dropping bombs on his sub. Two senior officers on the submarine thought that a nuclear war had already begun and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo on the US. But all three officers had to agree for the missile to fire, and Arkhipov doubted, thus preventing a nuclear exchange, and potentially preventing the end of the world.

In 1995, Russian radars were alarmed by an incoming US strike. President Boris Yeltsin was alerted and given the briefcase with the codes for nuclear launch. Yeltsin eventually declined to launch a strike as he (by unknown reason) doubted the alarm and was convinced it was false. It turned out that the radars had picked up a research rocket, launched by Scandinavian scientists studying the northern lights.

Three great Russian Doubters saved our world. Perhaps Doubters who go against the protocol are the real heroes and can stop wars? We need more of these people in work life, not only in warfare, but people who use their brains and doubt – before they believe and act.

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.

Ove Holmberg

Doubter, gaffer, author