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Douglas Mattern: Five Minutes to Save the World

Five Minutes to Save the World

The Man – The Drama -- The Movie

By Douglas Mattern

“Five minutes to save the world” was Walter Cronkite’s response to Stanislav Petrov during an extraordinary interview session in Mr. Cronkite’s office at the CBS headquarters in New York City. I had arranged the interview with Mr. Cronkite, as well as the presentation of a second World Citizen Award to Mr. Petrov at the United Nations, at the request and in cooperation with Statement Film, the Danish company that is making a feature movie on Mr. Petrov.

The movie company became involved with the Petrov story after learning that the Association of World Citizens was to present an award to Mr. Petrov at the headquarters of Russia’s largest liberal newspaper, Moscow News, on 21 May 2004. After filming the award ceremony and learning about Mr. Petrov’s dramatic story, the company decided to make a movie on Mr. Petrov and spent considerable time in Russia filming Mr. Petrov at his home and other locations pertinent to the movie. After more than one year in production they brought Mr. Petrov to New York City to film interviews, his speech in the United Nations, which was held in Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium, and at other famous landmarks in the Big Apple to complete the film.

The movie centers on what Mr. Cronkite termed “five minutes to save the world,” which refers the incident on the night of September 26, 1983, when then Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the Soviet Union’s main nuclear command bunker. Colonel Petrov was in charge of 200 men with the responsibility of monitoring incoming signals from satellites when, suddenly, nightmare became reality as the warning system reported the Soviet Union was under attack by U.S. nuclear tipped missiles.

It’s important to note that this was a period of high tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. President Reagan was calling the Soviets the ”Evil Empire.” The Russian military had shot down a Korean passenger jet just three weeks before this incident, and the U.S. and NATO were organizing a joint military exercise Europe."

In the interview with Walter Cronkite, Petrov talked about that fateful night in September when the red button beamed “START” along with flashing lights and monitors showing that U.S. missiles were launched in an attack on Russia. There was a huge map of the States with a U.S. base lit up showing that the missiles had been launched. Petrov’s duty was to report the attack to command headquarters that could have initiated an immediate counter attack.

For five minutes in the midst of chaos and the prospect of total destruction, Petrov held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other as the lights on his console continued to flash MISSILE ATTACK. Petrov believed in his gut and hoping with all that is sacred, that contrary to what the high tech equipment was reporting, this alarm was an error. As the Moscow News reported, Petrov then made his historic decision and called his Kremlin liaison to report it was a false alarm.

But Colonel Petrov did not know for certain this was a false alarm. He said, “I made a decision and that was it.” It was only after about 15-20 agonizing minutes passed, waiting to detect if U.S. missiles were incoming, that Petrov’s decision proved correct. There were no incoming U.S. missiles. It was a system error that signaled the attack. In his interview with the Daily Mail newspaper, Petrov said that in principle “a nuclear war could have broken out. The whole world could have been destroyed.”

Dr. Bruce Blair, President of the Center for Defense Information, a leading expert on nuclear weapons and a former Minuteman Missile Launch Officer said: “I think this is the closest we’ve come to accidental nuclear war.”

Regarding the Petrov incident, former Soviet KBG officer Oleg A. Gordievsky stated in an article in the Baltimore Sun (August 31, 2003): “If the Soviet Union had overreacted, it could have gone very badly. If war had come, Soviet missiles would have destroyed Britain entirely, at least half of Germany and France, and America would have lost maybe 30 percent of its cities and infrastructure.”

The interview with Walter Cronkite and Stanislav Petrov was an unforgettable scene with the doors closed and the office crowded with the movie crew filming the event, and with the conversation between the two men lasting for about 25 uninterrupted minutes,

Mr. Petrov was comfortable with Walter Cronkite as the great journalist brought out the full story and drama of what happened on the fateful night and Mr. Petrov’s five minutes of decision that Cronkite credited with saving the world. I vividly recall Mr. Petrov explaining how he had morally prepared himself for the kind of decision he was forced to make on that fateful September night in 1983.

The conversation then shifted to the dreary events that followed 1983, leaving Petrov living poorly in a small town outside of Moscow with a meager pension, unrecognized and unrewarded until 20 years later when the first World Citizen Award was presented to him in Moscow in 2004. That ceremony received extensive media coverage in the U.S. and Russia, and Mr. Petrov, who is an intelligent, humble and kind man who always claims he was just doing his duty, is no longer a forgotten hero of our time.

This Petrov/Cronkite conversation will be one of the highlights in the movie on Mr. Petrov. The film is entitled “Minuteman,” and it will be distributed to movie theaters later this year. The World Citizen Award ceremony held in 2004 in Moscow, and at the UN this year, will also be in the film.

The movie is also a reminder that the catastrophic danger that Colonel Petrov faced in 1983 remains much the same with over 4,000 U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert, ready for launch in a few minutes notice that could destroy both countries in an hour. The message is clear that nuclear weapons must be eliminated from the face of the earth before it is forever too late. On this point, Mr. Cronkite and Mr. Petrov were in total agreement.

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Douglas Mattern is president of the Association of World Citizens, a San Francisco based international peace organization with branches in 30 countries, and author of the forthcoming book "Looking for Square Two - Moving From War and Violence to Global Community" published by American Book Publishing Co.

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