A fact from awhile back!
Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, a civilian passenger plane, was shot down over Eastern Ukraine yesterday; a similar but far more severe event happened 31 years ago, and it led to what is universally regarded as the closest the world ever came to total nuclear annihilation:
On September 26, 1983 the world as we know it almost ended.
Civilization was saved from mutual evisceration by a chance occurrence, and yet only 1 person on Earth knew for the next 10 years.
On that morning the Soviet early warnings systems began whistling and flashing. The screen in front of Stanislov Petrov read “launch” and the reliability indicator flashed “highest”.
There was no doubt that the U.S. had launched a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Over the next 3 minutes the siren registered more and more missiles as would be expected in a surprise nuclear strike. The system upgraded the threat from “launch” to “missile strike”.
Petrov’s duty was to immediately report any alert, much less one as strong as this, to his superior officer. To not report is dereliction of duty and all soldiers and civilians are keenly aware that the consequences are brutally painful in the Soviet Union.
This particular incident happened in a period that Cold War historian’s agree is the point of highest tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Just 3 weeks prior the Soviet Union had shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007, a civilian airliner, killing 269 people including 60 American citizens and Lawrence McDonald, a U.S. Congressman (R-GA).
We’re currently worried about a civilian airliner shot down by Russian funded rebels over a warzone with 0 American deaths, so imagine the tension after a Soviet military jet shot down a civilian plane that killed a U.S. Congressman and 59 other Americans at the peak of the Cold War. The Soviets were justly paranoid with anticipation of a heavy handed response, and here was a confirmed and escalating missile attack entering the Soviet Union from the U.S.
Soviet military leaders were positive a nuclear strike was coming. Former Soviet Generals alive today confirm that they were so fearful that they would have immediately launched a full retaliation if a threat was detected.
Had Petrov done his duty, picked up the phone, and told his superior officer what he was seeing there is no doubt that the Soviet Union would have launched literally thousands of nuclear missiles at the U.S., and the U.S. would then return the favor.
Keep in mind that by 1983 nuclear weapons were literally thousands of times more powerful than the primitive nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Due to radiation New York, San Diego, L.A., Chicago and hundreds more cities would not be habitable to this day.
Historians agree that this incident was the closest the world ever came to a genuine nuclear apocalypse. Besides the immediate mayhem there’d be crop failure, nuclear winter, collapse of trade and stock markets, currency collapse; civilization as we currently know it was a phone call from collapse. But it gets even freakier.
Mr. Petrov himself says “My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders.” He was the only officer who grew up as a civilian, and his hesitance, which he states was a fluke in and of itself, would not have existed for a soldier raised in the military.
Had any other officer been on duty the world we currently inhabit would be worse than a zombie apocalypse. People would watch The Walking Dead and say “I wish I lived in that paradise”.
Next time you’re loathing your life’s circumstances just remember this story. Had a bad day? A stressful week where everything went wrong? Well at least we don’t live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland because we were a shift change from that reality on September 26, 1983.
Knowing what the world could look like lends overwhelming appreciation for what the world does look like, even if it’s not perfect.