As most of the world awoke that day, we did not know the astonishing number of lives that were about to be extinguished.
In Northern Ireland, on the outskirts of Lisburn, 38 prisoners had successfully escaped. They had a shared history of shootings, hijackings, bombings, and assassinations. Their targets had included officials and civilians. Government buildings and tourist hotels had been blown up. Hundreds had died.
The escape was violent. Dozens of guards were injured. One died of heart failure. Thousands of police and military personnel were in pursuit.
Nobody, not the prison guards who were shot or stabbed, not the 38 escaped prisoners, not the thousands assigned to capture them, knew that all of them, guards, escaped prisoners, soldiers, and police were about to die.
In the United States, at a Philadelphia arena, a series of wrestling personalities put on a furious show of violence for an enthusiastic audience. Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura were there. Neither they, nor the arena audience, realized that they were all minutes away from an explosive death.
A technologically based disaster movie was winding down from an unexpectedly successful run. The company that had produced the visual effects had won the Academy Scientific and Technical Award. Theater showings had been going on for three months. Moviegoers pretty much knew the plot as they walked in. The ending had not stayed a secret for long. But they cheered at the climactic scene.
The theme was humanity on the brink of catastrophe. In the movie, a runaway computer system did not recognize the difference between a between a nuclear attack and the simulation it had generated itself. Giant screens flashed one nuclear scenario after another in a dazzling display. Then screens went dead.
In theatres around the country, audiences waited for the flat computer voice.
A strange game.
The only winning move is not to play.
How about a nice game of chess?
The cheering from theatre audiences combined that evening with that of onscreen military and civilian personnel. The world, in the movie, was saved.
In all those theatres, among all of those audiences, not one patron knew that, within moments, they would all be dead.
It was turning to morning in Moscow. Outside the city, in the Serpukhov military base, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov had been on duty for only a few hours. He was one of a handful of military people who realized that moviegoers and arena audiences, prisoners and police, children and parents and school teachers, embezzlers working at night, and couples making love were all about to join in a baptism of nuclear fire. All were minutes away from death.
Three weeks before, a Soviet pilot had shot down a passenger jet, Korean Flight 007. President Reagan was outraged and vocal. The Soviet Union would pay. Russia’s intelligence agencies told Soviet officials the Americans were serious. A nuclear attack was likely, and it would happen soon.
Stanislav Petrov could hardly believe what he was watching on screen. The American attack had begun. One US missile headed toward Moscow was joined by four others. Hundreds more were known to be ready and would soon be added to them. In Moscow, other screens showed the same American missiles on their deadly journey. The order came. Lieutenant Colonel Petrov was told to fire Soviet missiles before it was too late.
The American attack did not make sense to Stanislav Petrov. There were still only five missiles carrying nuclear destruction to Russian cities. Why so few?
He decided to wait for a few minutes. If more US missiles appeared on his screen, he would fire enough missiles to end the lives of virtually all Americans.
Even if no other missiles appeared, and any of the missiles that could be seen were about to reach their targets, he would fire and worldwide nuclear war would take its course.
In the meantime, he would defy the order to launch those retaliatory nuclear missiles. He would wait a few moments.
Military nuclear operations in both countries had long been based on the same brutal strategy. If incoming missiles took out responding missiles before they could be fired, the aggressor would win. So deterrence depended on fast reaction. If we were attacked, they had to know we would fire ours before theirs could reach us. And we knew the reverse.
The strategy had been around for decades. In the early 1950s, US missiles were aimed only at military targets. So were Soviet missiles. Both sides boasted about the humanitarian effort to avoid population centers. And both sides tried hard to produce more nuclear capability than the other.
Experts in the new field of nuclear strategy warned that this so-called “humanitarian” tactic was not humanitarian at all. And it was not strategically sound. Aiming weapons at weapons meant that both sides had an anxious incentive to fire first. The side that did not fire first would not be able to fire at all. Attack or be attacked. The world was about to become like two scorpions trapped in a bottle. Even if they did not want to strike, they had to.
So weapons were redeployed to aim at population centers. And it was done openly. If we fired at you, your people would be destroyed. But you would be able to fire back, so our people would be destroyed as well. The reverse was also true. If you attacked, destroying our people, your people would die.
It was called Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD. Seemed fitting. But it also seemed stable.
The arms race went on, then accelerated. As long as we kept up, we would be safe. And as long as they kept up, they would be safe. The more nuclear firepower, the more incentive everyone would have to keep missiles in their silos.
It didn’t seem to be working out that way.
In a world of continual confrontation, and technology that was sometimes … well … uncertain, MAD turned out to be not so stable after all.
The Cuban missile crisis, the crisis that occasional high ranking Republicans confess to never having heard of, brought us right to the edge of nuclear war. Two very angry nuclear powers coming nose to nose made the world acutely aware of how close we remained to worldwide hellfire.
During the crisis, when a rogue Soviet missile operator in Cuba shot down an American reconnaissance plane, US generals demanded full-fledged military retaliation. President Kennedy held off.
At about the same time, a stray US military plane headed straight into Soviet airspace. If the USSR had mistaken the plane for a missile, or even suspected it was armed with nuclear weapons, the response could have been a worldwide holocaust.
We had come very close before the Soviet Union backed away.
The nuclear arms race meant that every minor confrontation could easily become mega-deadly. Nuclear proliferation, with more and smaller countries getting those weapons, meant local disagreements could make large parts of the world glow in the dark.
Every US President from Eisenhower onward has tried to reduce the danger of too many weapons in the world, and of too many hands holding those weapons. Negotiating the danger downward has been a priority for Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
So when our new, incoming President sent a message by internet, it was a departure from 60 years of policy through 11 Presidents of every ideology.
Aides to the President-elect scrambled to reassure citizens of the United States, citizens of the world, that he meant something different than he said.
The about-to-be leader of the most powerful nation in history helped out with a clarification.
Let it be an arms race, we will outmatch them at every pass. And outlast them all.
– Donald Trump, December 23, 2016
Only five missiles appeared on the early warning screen of Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov just after midnight, Moscow time, on September 26, 1983. Those five missiles disappeared before he responded with a counter attack on the US. The missiles were not real after all, phantoms produced by a systems flaw.
38 prisoners in Northern Ireland were re-captured, alive. The thousands of authorities in pursuit went safely to their homes. One prison guard had died from heart failure. Fight fans in Philadelphia had an exciting night and left safely. Theatre patrons across the United States saw the end of a thrilling movie. They lived to hear the words about nuclear war:
A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.
That is how there came to be an October in 1983.
We can imagine what may have gone through the mind of a sole military officer in the Soviet Union, as he closed in on launching the missiles that would end virtually all human life.
He apparently knew what we can hope will penetrate the zero-sum “we will outlast them all” thinking of an incoming American President.
Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov realized that the nuclear game is not a game at all.
When we do outlast those who lose in that war, it will not make us winners.
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