At the Brink
It was September 1983, and the Cold War was anything but cold. President Ronald Reagan was in the White House calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire;” the United States invaded the island of Granada; and the military introduced a ballistic missile defense system that would become known as “Star Wars.”
Meanwhile, Great Britain and France were implementing their own aggressive nuclear weapons program that year, and the Soviet Union conducted more than a half-dozen underground nuclear test explosions.
It was also on September 1, 1983, that the USSR shot down Korea Air Flight 007 when it strayed near Soviet airspace, killing all 269 civilians on board including Georgia Congressman Larry McDonald. It was as close to war as the US and the USSR had come since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was tense, but that’s not the half of it.
Three weeks after the Flight 007 incident, with passions running high on both sides, and with thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at each other, one of the greatest heroes of our time quietly went to work at a Soviet military base just outside of Moscow. His name was Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, and until a few years ago, no one knew of his heroics.
At the time the Soviets had a highly sophisticated early warning system against US ballistic missile attacks. It was Petrov’s duty to monitor this alert system in the event of a preemptive nuclear attack. The responding protocol was to launch an immediate all-out counterattack.
On September 26, 1983, the unthinkable happened. Suddenly, at Colonel Petrov’s station, the computer alarms sounded, warning that an American missile was heading toward the Soviet Union. Petrov waited. He reasoned that it had to be a computer error since the United States was not likely to launch just one missile if it were attacking the Soviet Union.
But then, a second missile was detected; then a third; a fourth, and a fifth. The sky seemed to be filled with American warheads! Still, Petrov had a “funny feeling in his gut,” that the alert system was malfunctioning. Further, it was unthinkable, for him, that he would be the final reason for a war that would end human civilization.
So, Petrov sat on the alert message, overrode the security system, and prevented the USSR from retaliating. The seconds passed, then minutes, and finally an hour: There were no missiles. His gut feeling had been right all along. The warning system had failed with near cataclysmic consequences for the human race.
Singlehandedly, Petrov had prevented a worldwide nuclear war, simply by not becoming a participant in it. And for averting this cosmic disaster Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was relieved of his duty, and the entire episode was locked away in the cellar of Soviet secrets for nearly two decades.
The Pauline admonition is fitting upon the anniversary of Petrov’s heroics. Paul wrote, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.” Literally translated, “Whatever comes out of you, let it lead to peace.” It is redemptive counsel to us to do all we can to protect harmony; clearly, don’t be the one responsible for creating conflict – exceed all limits – to neutralize it.
Now, not every personal or individual skirmish has the potential to balloon into a global apocalypse. But worldwide wars are not that much different than private ones in the end. The same tit for tat is in play. The same wounded pride demands to be assuaged. And likewise, at some point in the conflict there is an opportunity for someone to step away from the brink.
There is opportunity for someone to refuse to perpetuate the ruthless cycle of attack and counterattack; for someone to reject the established protocol of retaliation; for someone to practice peace. Let that someone be you. You might just save the world.