The Man who Saved the World from Nuclear War (Opinion)

The Man who Saved the World from Nuclear War (Opinion)

Every week there seems to be some new development in the North Korean arsenal building process. In the midst of missile test after missile test, provocation after provocation, it’s easy to forget the strategy being played out and the dangers involved. As a prospective political science major, the topic of North Korean relations comes up frequently in the classes I take, and it is never discussed without fear. Between the Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump, China, and about 2,130 nuclear tipped missiles, it seems like only a matter of time before one declares war on another.

The prospect of open war, however, has always been a fairly unlikely one. I was reminded of the real danger in North Korea just a couple weeks ago, when I learned about the death of Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces. He is not a household name, but what he lacks in recognition he makes up for in importance. On September 26, 1983 Stanislav Petrov saved the world. Tensions were high between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Union had shot down a Korean passenger aircraft, killing 269 people, including Congressman Larry McDonald of Georgia. Threats were exchanged and nuclear strikes were not a distant possibility. Then, in a satellite monitoring station being watched by Petrov, the alarms sounded, indicating five incoming U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles. And, despite the protocols mandating that he immediately report the alarm to the the authorities, Petrov did not move.

He suspected that the monitoring system’s warning was a false alarm, and he was right. Given the heightened tensions, had he reported the alarm the Soviet Union likely would have struck the United States with nuclear- tipped missiles. The U.S. would likely have responded in kind. Nuclear apocalypse was averted by one night watchman’s quick thinking, resulting in Petrov being remembered as “the man who single-handedly saved the world from nuclear war.”

A minor technical failure could have led to the end of our world. Not one country attacking the other or a misunderstanding among the leadership, just a couple satellites misfiring. This is the true danger of a confrontation between two nuclear powers. I am not worried that Kim Jong Un will attack South Korea or the United States. I’m not even that worried that Trump will attack North Korea. Those actions are death warrants, and despite each leader’s bombastic nature, I do not think either wants to destroy the world. The true danger here is miscalculation by technology or a lower officer, and the higher the tensions, the more likely these sorts of mistakes.

This is not to say you should not be worried. Kim Jong Un’s testing has inflamed tensions to an unsustainable level. Trump’s idiotic rhetoric threatening North Korea pushes us closer to the nuclear precipice every day. The higher the tensions go, the more brittle the situation is, and the easier it is for minor mistakes to cause serious problems.

In Conversation with Claire Messud

In Conversation with Claire Messud

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