Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Most Pressure in History

Overwhelmingly, the nominee was Stanislav Petrov.

If you're not already aware, here are the details:
The Soviet Union’s missile attack early warning system displayed, in large red letters, the word “LAUNCH”; a computer screen stated to the officer on duty, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, that it could say with “high reliability” that an American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) had been launched and was headed toward the Soviet Union. First, it was just one missile, but then another, and another, until the system reported that a total of five Minuteman ICBMs had been launched.

“Petrov had to make a decision: Would he report an incoming American strike?” my colleague Max Fisher explained. “If he did, Soviet nuclear doctrine called for a full nuclear retaliation; there would be no time to double-check the warning system, much less seek negotiations with the US.”

...But Petrov did not report the incoming strike. He and others on his staff concluded that what they were seeing was a false alarm. And it was; the system mistook the sun’s reflection off clouds for a missile. Petrov prevented a nuclear war between the Soviets, who had 35,804 nuclear warheads in 1983, and the US, which had 23,305.

A 1979 report by Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment estimated that a full-scale Soviet assault on the US would kill 35 to 77 percent of the US population — or between 82 million and 180 million people in 1983. The inevitable US counterstrike would kill 20 to 40 percent of the Soviet population, or between 54 million and 108 million people. The combined death toll there (between 136 million and 288 million) swamps the death toll of any war, genocide, or other violent catastrophe in human history. Proportional to world population, it would be rivaled only by the An Lushan rebellion in eighth-century China and the Mongol conquests of the 13th century.

I always thought that Petrov had his hand on the button to actually launch nuclear missiles. And I thought thought he was military, but he wasn't--he was a civilian, reporting information to the military.

He didn't make the decision alone, either, which I also didn't know. It was in conjunction with his staff.

Still, though, it was incredibly courageous, and a brilliant decision. And for those few minutes, it was probably the most pressure that anyone has ever faced.

Was it as much pressure as Collins? Not to me. If Petrov reports the false data, it would just confirm what other stations reported. It wasn't solely on him. Five nuclear weapons hit the USSR, they retaliate, we retaliate, and the world is basically uninhabitable after all the nukes are fired. No one is really around to blame him, and it wouldn't have been his fault, anyway.

Collins, if he screwed up, would have made a mistake that every person on Earth would have known about, and it would have followed him for the rest of his life.

He knew about the pressure in advance. It lasted for a much longer period.

Petrov is a legendary hero, and fully worthy of that title, but I still think it was tougher for Collins.

Here's an interesting thought experiment with Petrov. Is it possible that he had already decided what to do in this situation? That was his job, and how could anyone have that job and not try to play out every possible permutation in advance? If he already had, and he had already decided that nothing could be gained by the USSR launching missiles in retaliation of a real attack, then he's even more courageous than anyone portrayed.

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