Somehow I made it this far in life without knowing about Stanislav Petrov, the man who may have saved the world from nuclear annihilation. Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces in 1983, when he received a warning from the computerized Soviet early warning system of an imminent nuclear attack from the United States. Petrov’s job, in this scenario, was to report the incident up the chain of command where a decision would need to have been made in minutes whether to launch a counter-strike. Many analysts believe the tight timeline would have led to a Soviet strike.
But Petrov thought the warning seemed suspect and was more likely an error with the warning system, so he didn’t report it. He wasn’t sure, but figured it was better to err on the side of caution. Of course, that turned out to be a wise choice. For a while, the Soviet Union couldn’t decide whether to punish Petrov or reward him. In the end they pretty much did neither.
There are many lessons from this story. Lessons about the fragility of a system that could have lead to nuclear war because of the way sunlight hit high altitude clouds in North Dakota. Lessons about misplaced security. But today, I am reminded that we do our best when we empower people in this world to move beyond the systems and structures we so often turn to idols. May God grant us the wisdom to so empower, and wisdom when empowered.
Rev. Daniel Smith
Colorado Springs Faith Leader Table
Ascension Lutheran Church, Colorado Springs