For those that have known me for more than, say, six minutes, know that I have a passing interest in The Bomb. Being a child of the 70s and 80s I say how could I not? After first learning of the Atomic Clock from either my friends over at CONELRAD or perhaps atomic historian Richard Rhodes I have kept a close eye on its movements the way a witch watches her tea leaves. Unlike those tea leaves however, the Atomic Clock rarely tells me something I don’t already know. I did admit surprise last year when the minute hand was moved back a minute to six before midnight. Had the atomic scientists in charge of keeping it wound not been watching the news? Had President Obama’s Peace Prize distracted them? Surely we weren’t further away from nuclear annihilation then the moment before. So, it came as no surprise, and in fact some small relief to see the minute hand moved back to five minutes before midnight earlier today. Who are we kidding if not ourselves?
I’m reminded of an atomic anecdote: On September 26, 1983 due to a glitch the world was brought to the edge of nuclear war. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, a 44 year old career military man in the Soviet army was at his post in the secret bunker at Serpukhov-15, the Soviet version of NORAD, when the early warning alarms went off; the Americans had launched. The satellite data showed a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile missile had been fired, and then another, and another, and another, until seemingly five were flying toward them.
Petrov was the man that had to make the decision and as he picked up the phone to call his superiors he had one nagging thought, “why only five missiles? What damage can just five missiles do? Why not a full launch?” He hesitated.
Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was paranoid that the U.S. would secretly launch an assault. The CIA claims that most of the Russian spies at the time were gathering information on whether or not that was true. Had Andropov received that call, he might have retaliated.
Petrov didn’t make the call though. He said later in an interview that he had a funny feeling in his gut. He didn’t want to be wrong. With his decision made, he hung up the phone and waited.
Due to luck, courage and guts we’re all still waiting too. Here’s hoping that a “Petrov” still sits at the controls – on both sides. Good night Mr. Petrov, wherever you are.