Anniversary Post: Soviet Nuclear False Alarm

Stanislav PetrovOn this day in 1983, the Soviet nuclear false alarm incident occurred. But in order to understand it, we have to take a step back to 1 September of that same year. Just three and a half weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which strayed into its prohibited airspace. The Soviets claimed that the flight incursion was meant to test their defenses (a claim very similar to that made by the Clockers). But understandably, no one in the west really believed that.

So on 26 September, when the Soviet nuclear early warning system detects two ballistic missile launches from the US, the generally twitchy Soviet Union could easily believe that we had decided to start a war. Luckily, the officer on duty at that time was Stanislav Petrov. The first detection was of a single missile. Petrov thought that it must be a computer error for two reasons. First, it made no sense for the US to launch a single missile. Second, there had been concerns about the detection system. So he waited. Then another detection came in — this time of four missile launches. He again did nothing. And in so doing probably saved the world. (It turned out to be an unusual reflection of the sun off clouds.)

Of course, not everyone was quite so thrilled with his actions in the Soviet Union at that time. And I think about how some people here in the US would think about someone working for our military doing the same thing. I don’t think it would go well. Look at Chelsea Manning — who critics claim (1) didn’t release any information we didn’t already know; and (2) should be shot for treason. There are a lot of people who really do think it is better to destroy the world than to disobey orders.

The whole thing reminds me of a kind of communal Sword of Damocles. But instead of sword hanging over the leader, there are swords hanging everywhere. It doesn’t require anyone actively cutting the threads; it just takes an accident. The rational thing is not to hang swords over everyone’s heads. But things that are obvious to individuals and even small groups are beyond the means of whole countries. “So what if we do develop this Solanite bomb? We’d be even a stronger nation than now!” Ed Wood got that one right.

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