Sunday, September 28, 2008

The man who prevented a nuclear war

I remembered reading about this a few years ago.

While conservatives have formed a posthumous lovefest around Ronald Reagan, forgotten are the dangerous first couple of years in his presidency when his "evil empire" rhetoric played well at home but did little to ease international tensions. Then the Soviets shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 on September 1, 1983, which was flying from JFK airport to Seoul, South Korea. At first the Soviets said the plane was spying, but later admitted to a "mistake" that cost the lives of 269 civilians. (No one is sure why the aircraft wandered into Soviet airspace, or why it didn't respond to Soviet radio calls, if they ever received those calls.)

On September 26, 1983, the world came this close to a nuclear war. Soviet early warning systems detected a missile heading for Moscow from the United States. Soviet protocol was to launch a massive nuclear counterstrike, but Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov wasn't convinced. He thought a single missile made no sense. He delayed the counterattack, even after another, and another, and another missile were recorded in bound.

You can read the full story here, but the upshot is that Petrov's assumption of a computer error was correct. He saved the world from nuclear war, at the cost of his pension and a nervous breakdown.

I wish I had posted this on the 25th anniversary of the incident, but better late than never. Petrov is little known, but he's someone everyone should know, and thank.

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