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Colonel Petrov saved the World from Nuclear War

There is an assumption amongst many in charge of nuclear weapons that accidents just don’t happen. This is nonsense. There have been accidents of every kind involving nuclear weapons including even the  dropping of nuclear weapons themselves.

Professor Lawrence Freedman of Kings College London has said that to think that this  can go on for ever without disaster requires ‘an optimism unjustified by any historical or political perspective’.

One unsung hero ,who probably saved the world from nuclear war, was Lt.Colonel Stanislav Petrov. He was the Soviet officer in charge of an early warning bunker near Moscow  on the night of Sept 26th 1983. His job was to monitor the western skies and the computer network of early warning systems.

His duty was to warn the leaders of the Soviet Union if the country was under attack. This  was a time of high tension. The Soviet Union had been branded an evil empire by the American President. NATO had (and has) a nuclear first use policy. War fighting  cruise and Pershing missiles were being introduced into Europe. Some Western thinkers publicly claimed that wars involving nuclear weapons could be ‘ won’.

Worst of all a NATO exercise ,‘ Able Archer’, which would involve moving real troops up to the Warsaw Pact borders and even going through the motions of launching nuclear weapons, was being planned for early November. There was real fear in Moscow . well  informed about what was going on, that all this was in preparation for a surprise attack. On that fateful night, the 26th September, just after midnight , Petrov received a computer message indicating that a missile had been launched by the West and was on its way to the Soviet Union.

He ignored this warning believing that there must have been a computer malfunction. Then came the warning of a second missile, then a third, then a fourth and finally a fifth.

His official duty was plain. He ought to have warned his superiors of a NATO missile attack.

But he did not. He knew that, if he did, it was very likely that a retaliatory launch would have been ordered by Moscow. Had it been there was every chance that world war three, the nuclear war, would have begun with global disaster of unimaginable scale.

Petrov was faced with a terrible choice. He decided to trust his own judgement that the information he was getting was the result still of a computer failure. He was right. In a while it became clear that there was no missile attack. World War111 was averted- by a hairsbreadth.

No one praised him for the decision he made . He was labelled an unreliable officer and moved to a less sensitive post. He took early retirement soon after and left the service under a cloud. It was only when the story reached the world’s media years later that his courage and good sense was recognised. He was given a special international medal in 2006 as a World Citizen. Did he save the world? Bruce Blair, an American expert of the Cold War has said that this episode ‘ was the closest we have come to accidental nuclear war’.

It is time that we took the dangers of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation seriously. Good luck based on ignorance does not last forever. There are today 27.000  nuclear war heads in the world most of which are vastly more powerful than the bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are held by nine different countries. It may not be too long before they fall also into the hands of  groups not representing states. Terrorist organisations we call them though nuclear weapons in anyone’s hands are instruments of terror.

The urgent need is to eliminate them all. A draft treaty already exists which covers all the difficult issues of verification, inspection , policing and the responsibility of scientists.

We should prepare for the 2010 Nuclear Non Proliferation Review conference by demanding that negotiations aimed at abolition should start. Britain should go to that Conference with nuclear abolition firmly on the agenda.

30 Dec 07

650 words.


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