What can prevent World War III

30 years ago: A man prevented World War III

It was a false alarm that could have fatal consequences. In September 1983, a Soviet officer saved the world from nuclear war.

It was the nightmare scenario in the Cold War par excellence: US nuclear missiles approaching the Soviet Union. The logical consequence of a nuclear attack would have been a massive counter-attack, which would have meant destruction on both sides. But when the sirens wailed in the command center of the Soviet satellite surveillance near Moscow on September 26, 1983 at 12:15 a.m., one man kept his nerve: the senior officer Stanislav Petrov.

It was a time when Soviet leader Yuri Andropov expected a first strike by the USA at any time. Russian spies had only recently learned of a NATO maneuver designed to simulate a nuclear war. And in early September, a Korean plane (flight KAL007) that had accidentally entered Soviet airspace was taken down from the sky. Moscow had mistaken it for a US spy plane. 269 ​​people died.

Surveillance system reports a US missile

On September 26, 1983, the Soviet surveillance system reported in red letters "START", that is, the launch of a US missile. From the very first moment, however, Petrov doubts the correctness of the alarm message, interpreting it as an error message from the computer. However, he had to cover himself. He only has a few minutes before he has to report an attack or false alarm to his superiors.

In an interview with the German daily newspaper "Welt", Petrov remembered his approach last year. "I looked at the monitor that showed the satellite images, there was no rocket to be seen," said Petrov. "However, the military base from which the rocket was supposed to have started was on the day-night boundary. It could therefore also be because I could not see anything," said Petrov, explaining his dilemma.

"I'm an analyst, that couldn't be"

Even the experts responsible for visual observation cannot see anything. At the same time, however, the analysis of the computer system shows that everything works. Petrov keeps a cool head: "I'm a systems analyst, I know that such a thing couldn't be."

Petrov remembers that an attack would not come with a single missile, but would launch many missiles at the same time. At least that's how he learned it. So after two minutes he calls his superiors to report a false alarm. He has barely hung up, but the sirens go off again. "I went to another phone that I could use to call other systems analysts at home to call them in. My knees were weak when I got up. As I called, a third, fourth and fifth alarm went off." he remembers. But he sticks to his decision. "It was still strange that individual rockets should have been sent instead of many at the same time. I had nothing to revise."

Reflected sunbeam as the cause?

After a few minutes, the radar system finally confirms Petrov's judgment. Presumably a ray of sun reflected from a rare cloud formation fooled the warning system, wrote "Spiegel Online" three years ago under the title "The man who prevented World War III".

From today's perspective, one can be happy that Petrov had not yet received the information from the Soviet secret service that the US would have carried out a nuclear strike in two waves. "First of all, there would have been a decapitation blow against Moscow, with which one wanted to force the Soviet Union to surrender," wrote "heise.de" under the title "Stanislaw Petrow and the secret of the red button". "If you had resisted, you would have started nuclear annihilation. An attack with only five missiles each with twelve warheads would have made perfect sense." Petrov admitted: "If I had known that at the time, I would have made a different decision."

"If I'm wrong, I have to pay for it"

In a "press" interview in December 2012, Petrov made it clear how close the world was to a nuclear war: "I was 50:50 sure and decided for myself: It doesn't matter if I'm wrong, I have to I'll just pay for it, but I'll never be to blame for a third world war. In such a third world war we would have perished first, and 20 to 25 minutes later the Americans would have died too. "

"It was unpleasant that everything was very secret," said Petrov. His wife did not find out about the incident until ten years later. "If I had told my wife something, the whole military settlement would have known about it the next day. Women can't keep secrets," he said.

"Nobody thought that was heroism"

Petrov was not rewarded for his act - on the contrary. "The commission of inquiry found many deficiencies in the work of the system and certified that I was impeccable. That could not go through, because against the shameful background nobody wanted to distinguish me," Petrov recalled. "And so I was accused with fabricated pretexts and accused of not having properly drawn up documents."

In any case, he himself never felt like a "hero". "Fortunately, like the others, I forgot the 1983 incident. Nobody thought that was heroism. It worked, and that was it," said Petrov to the "press". "There is no need to talk, to gossip, to give to heroes."