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Douglas Mattern: Forgotten Hero Honored

Forgotten Hero Honored

By Douglas Mattern
June 23, 2004
Association of World Citizens

CAPTION: Colonel Stanislav Petrov receiving the World Citizen Award from Arseny Roginsky of the human rights organization Memorial. Mr. Roginsky presented the award on behalf of the Association of World Citizens.

"Man Honored for Averting Nuclear War"

This was the CBS News headline on the story of Colonel Stanislav Petrov receiving a special World Citizen Award in Moscow on May 21 of this year. The award was presented by the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization based in San Francisco.

It was the night of September 26, 1983 that Stanislav Petrov, a former colonel in the Red Army, may have singularly avoided a nuclear war due to his calm judgment during an incident of the highest danger and extreme stress. Petrov was in charge of 200 men operating a Russian early warning bunker just south of Moscow. Petrov's job was monitoring incoming signals from satellites. He reported directly to the Russian early warning-system headquarters that reported to the Soviet leader on the possibility of launching a retaliatory attack.

This was a time of high tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. President Reagan was calling the Soviets the "Evil Empire." The Russian military shot down a Korean passenger jet just three weeks prior to this incident, and the U.S. and NATO were organizing a military exercise that centered on tactical nuclear weapons. Some Soviet leaders were worried the west was planning a nuclear attack.

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In an interview with the English newspaper Daily Mail, Colonel Petrov recalled that fateful night when alarms went off and the early warning computer screens were showing a nuclear attack launched by the United States. "I felt as if I'd been punched in my nervous system. There was a huge map of the States with a U.S. base lit up, showing that the missiles had been launched."

For several minutes Petrov held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other as alarms continued blaring, red lights blinking, and the computers reporting that U.S. missiles were on their way. In the midst of this horrific chaos and terror, the prospect of the end of civilization itself, Petrov made an historic decision not to alert higher authorities, believing in his gut and hoping with all that is sacred, that contrary to what all the sophisticated equipment was reporting, this alarm was an error.

"I didn't want to make a mistake," Petrov said, "I made a decision and that was it." The Daily Mail wrote: "Had Petrov cracked and triggered a response, Soviet missiles would have rained down on U.S. cities. In turn, that would have brought a devastating response from the Pentagon."

As agonizing minutes passed, Petrov's decision proved correct. It was a computer error that signaled a U.S. attack. Petrov said, "In principle, a nuclear war could have broken out. The whole world could have been destroyed."

"I think that this is the closest we've come to accidental nuclear war." Dr. Bruce Blair, Director, Center for Defense Information, Dateline NBC, Nov. 12, 2000.

Petrov's health was destroyed by the stress of this incident. His wife died of cancer and he lives alone in a small town about 30 miles from Moscow on a meager government pension.

"Once I would have liked to have been given some credit for what I did," said Petrov, "But it is so long ago and today everything is emotionally burned out inside me. I still have a bitter feeling inside my soul as I remember the way I was treated."

Stanislav Petrov is a "Hero of our time" and he finally honored with the World Citizen Award that was reported by over 60 news sources worldwide. In addition, a Danish film crew filmed the award ceremony for a documentary they are making on Colonel Petrov. The film crew will come to the U.S. for more interviews, and Petrov is scheduled to come also. The Association of World Citizens will schedule public lectures for Petrov in San Francisco, Washington and New York City.

Today, in this fourth year of the new millennium, the type of crisis that Petrov faced continues with false alarms and thousands of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads on a hair-trigger alert, ready for launch in a few minutes notice that would reduce most of both countries to radioactive toast. Our highest priority is to have all nuclear warheads taken off "hair-trigger" status before it is forever too late.


Douglas Mattern is President of the Association of World Citizens, a San Francisco based international peace organization with branches in over 30 countries.

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