What can one good man do? Well, every once in a while, he can save the world.
On September 26, 1983, a fellow named Stanislav Petrov was working his regular job, and made a controversial decision. At the time it was controversial because it was unorthodox and against policy; in hindsight it’s controversial because people don’t agree whether Mr. Petrov saved the world, or merely contributed to the saving of the world.
Stanislav Petrov worked at the Soviet missile-defense system, and on the morning of September 26, he saw definite indicators that the United States had launched some of its feared arsenal of intercontinental nuclear missiles. The right thing to do, in terms of his job, would have been to report this to the people in charge of authorizing a nuclear counterstrike. Instead he did the right thing in terms of acting like a human being: he did nothing.
Having grown up steeped in Cold War propaganda and paranoia, faced with the nightmare scenario of imminent nuclear armageddon, the apocalyptic boogeyman that haunted the dreams of generations, Mr. Petrov looked at those five missiles his system said were coming to kill him and said “No. I don’t believe they’d do that. I don’t believe they want to end the world any more than I do, no matter what I’ve been told. I don’t believe they’d attack, and if they did it wouldn’t look like this. It is a lot more likely that this expensive new satellite system is screwed up somewhere than that the Americans have launched five missiles to kill me.”
He was, of course, right, and he ended up paying a price for doing the right thing, because he’d embarrassed a government more sensitive to embarrassment than a junior high school student. And they should be embarrassed; frankly, almost nothing done during the Cold War was not embarrassing. We should not design or rely on systems where the fate of our fragile and goofy-looking species hangs on the decision of one man. However, when we foolishly back into such a situation, we can only hope that the decision must be made by a good man, who chooses hope and trust and rationality over tribalistic fear and warmongering paranoia.
As you go about your business today, take a moment to notice that you’re not a radioactive scorch mark, and thank the cool head and judgment of Mr. Petrov.