The message appeared clear: The United States had just launched a nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. And Petrov had to immediately warn his commanders so that the Soviet government could plan a counterattack.
A second missile was launched. Then another, and another, and another.
Petrov and his staff were in shock, but they had only minutes, if not seconds, to act. The decision rested heavily on Petrov, the officer in charge of Serpukhov-15. And he had two choices: He could follow military protocol and tell his commanders that computer readouts were saying that five intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched by the United States. Or he could go with his gut.
Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
Less than five minutes after the alarms began blaring, Petrov, working the intercom with one hand with lights flashing around him, picked up the phone with his other hand. He told his commanders that the computer warnings were false. If he was wrong, his mistake would be catastrophic and irreversible. The government’s military would have no time to respond, leaving his country vulnerable in the face of a nuclear attack.
A mistake would be especially critical at a time of heightened distrust between the United States and the Soviet Union. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov had sent instructions to his spies to look for evidence that the West was plotting a nuclear attack. And just weeks earlier, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007, a commercial airliner carrying 269 passengers, including 63 Americans.
But if Petrov was right, a nuclear holocaust in the middle of the Cold War would be averted.
And he was.
Petrov died May 19 at age 77. Much of the public and the media did not know of his death until Karl Schumacher, a German activist who found out about Petrov several years ago and became his friend, called his family on Sept. 7 to wish the former military officer a happy birthday. Petrov’s son told Schumacher that his father had died months ago. Schumacher then wrote about it on his website.
Petrov’s split-second and arguably life-changing decision has been hailed as a heroic act by Western media, though he has repeatedly said he’s not a hero. He was called “The Man Who Saved the World” by a 2014 documentary narrated by actor Kevin Costner. He also received international recognition, including the World Citizen Award from the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens, a peace organization, in 2004.
At home, however, some believe he was treated unfairly and deprived of the recognition he deserved. Schumacher said the Soviet Union did not want to admit that its computerized antimissile system had defects. In an interview with The Washington Post in 1999, Petrov said Soviet investigators who examined the incident tried to make him a scapegoat.
Over the years, Petrov talked candidly about those harrowing seconds and minutes in that bunker.
“I felt like I was being led to an execution. Seconds felt like minutes and minutes stretched for eternity,” he said in the 2014 documentary.
His decision was based largely on a guess, he said, but he did have doubts about the accuracy of the computer warnings. First, why just five missiles? A country seeking to start a nuclear war would’ve fired more, he told The Post. Second, the ground-based radar installations, which detected missiles, showed no evidence of an attack.
“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov said. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”
He also made clear that he understood the full weight of his decision.
“I refused to be guilty of starting World War III … If I made the wrong decision, a lot of people will die. A lot of people will die,” he said in the documentary.
After the incident, investigators heavily interrogated Petrov. They asked him why he did not write down every detail of that night. “Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand,” he replied, according to The Post.
Petrov was ultimately neither punished nor rewarded. The government deemed the incident classified, so he remained silent for years. The press found out about his story in the late 1990s, years after the Soviet Union collapsed, according to the BBC.
Petrov lived the last years of his life on a meager pension in a town outside Moscow. His wife died of cancer in 1997. They had two children and two grandchildren.
Schumacher, the German activist, said Petrov’s son told him that the funeral was attended by only a handful of family members. But he believes the man whose actions saved the world from a nuclear disaster deserved far more than that — a state funeral attended by foreign dignitaries.
Schumacher said he would’ve liked to have been there to say, “Thank you, Mr. Petrov.”
Washington Post contributing editor David Hoffman contributed to this report.