Perspective, As the New Year Begins

A good friend of mine, Steve Millard, a true modern telecoms-data movement pioneer, among many other things, keeps me on his intriguing mailing list. Last night (1230.07) I got what follows. As a kid who, in the early 50s, was subjected to "get under the desk" drills in the face of Soviet nucs, perhaps this has special resonance.

But I think the issue is broader than that—fact is, what follows kept me up most of last night (Sunday 1230). In a hyper-rank-conscious society (the Soviets), one incredibly thoughtful Red Army Colonel may have saved the world courtesy one and only one thing—common sense.

My message, though, is not just a tribute to applied common sense. As the new year approaches, I'd urge you to use this story as a reminder of how precious and precarious life is. Last year I touted a wonderful book, The Manager's Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Build Great Companies, by Adecco exec Steve Harrison. I suggest using this Big Story of impending Nuclear Holocaust to remember small gestures. That is, take the time, with family and friends and colleagues and, indeed, strangers on the street, to smile or say thanks or somehow or other go the extra inch to introduce humanity into your moment-by-moment routines. Do this especially when you are harried and "don't have a second to waste." Between this amazing story about you and me and Colonel Stanislav Petrov and planetary nuclear incineration, and Dickens' Christmas Carol (I re-read it every Christmas), we should be humbled—and moved to give serious thought to the ways in which we transit the world on any given day, at any given moment.

[What follows is the beginning of an article re-printed from See the original here, and more by author Tony Rennell here.]

"September 26th, 1983: The Day the World Almost Died," by Tony Rennell

Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant-colonel in the military intelligence section of the Soviet Union's secret service, reluctantly eased himself into the commander's seat in the underground early warning bunker south of Moscow.

It should have been his night off but another officer had gone sick and he had been summoned at the last minute.

Before him were screens showing photographs of underground missile silos in the Midwest prairies of America, relayed from spy satellites in the sky.

He and his men watched and listened on headphones for any sign of movement—anything unusual that might suggest the U.S. was launching a nuclear attack.

This was the height of the Cold War between the USSR and the U.S. Both sides packed a formidable punch—hundreds of rockets and thousands of nuclear warheads capable of reducing the other to rubble.

It was a game of nerves, of bluff and counterbluff. Who would fire first? Would the other have the chance to retaliate?

The flying time of an inter-continental ballistic missile, from the U.S. to the USSR, and vice-versa, was around 12 minutes. If the Cold War were ever to go "hot," seconds could make the difference between life and death.

Everything would hinge on snap decisions. For now, though, as far as Petrov was concerned, more hinged on just getting through another boring night in which nothing ever happened.
Except then, suddenly, it did. A warning light flashed up, screaming red letters on a white background—"LAUNCH. LAUNCH." Deafening sirens wailed. The computer was telling him that the U.S. had just gone to war.

The blood drained from his face. He broke out in a cold sweat. But he kept his nerve. The computer had detected missiles being fired but the hazy screens were showing nothing untoward at all, no telltale flash of a missile roaring out of its silo into the sky. Could this be a computer glitch rather than Armageddon?

Instead of calling an alert that within minutes would have had Soviet missiles launched in a retaliatory strike, Petrov decided to wait.

The warning light flashed again—a second missile was, apparently, in the air. And then a third. Now the computer had stepped up the warning: "Missile attack imminent!"

But this did not make sense. The computer had supposedly detected three, no, now it was four, and then five rockets, but the numbers were still peculiarly small. It was a basic tenet of Cold War strategy that, if one side ever did make a preemptive strike, it would do so with a mass launch, an overwhelming force, not this dribble.

Petrov stuck to his common-sense reasoning. This had to be a mistake.

What if it wasn't? What if the holocaust the world had feared ever since the first nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, was actually happening before his very eyes—and he was doing nothing about it?

He would soon know. For the next ten minutes, Petrov sweated, counting down the missile time to Moscow. But there was no bright flash, no explosion 150 times greater than Hiroshima.

Instead, the sirens stopped blaring and the warning lights went off.

The alert on September 26th, 1983, had been a false one. Later, it was discovered that what the satellite's sensors had picked up and interpreted as missiles in flight was nothing more than high-altitude clouds.

Petrov's cool head had saved the world.

He got little thanks. He was relieved of his duties, sidelined, then quietly pensioned off. His experience that night was an extreme embarrassment to the Soviet Union.

Petrov may have prevented all out nuclear war, but at the cost of exposing the inadequacies of Moscow's much vaunted early warning shield.

Instead of feeling relieved, his masters in the Kremlin were more afraid than ever. They sank into a state of paranoia, fearful that in Washington, Ronald Reagan was planning a first-strike that would wipe them off the face of the earth.

The year was 1983 and—as a history documentary in a primetime slot on Channel 4 [UK] next weekend vividly shows—the next six weeks would be the most dangerous the world has ever experienced. ...

[Read the remainder of the article at]

Tom Peters posted this on December 31, 2007, in News.
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