8. The Little Known Functionary Who Saved the World
Not that many people know who Stanislav Petrov is. However, everybody alive today, anywhere in the world, irrespective of race, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, political persuasion, or any other distinction, owes him a huge debt of gratitude.
Acting on a gut instinct and placing a huge responsibility upon his own shoulders, Petrov saved the world from a full-blown nuclear holocaust. In short, if not for Petrov, most of us would not be alive today. The relative few still living would be struggling to survive in some barbarous and radioactive post-apocalypse environment.
Early in the morning of September 26th, 1983, Soviet early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the US. Computer readouts confirmed the warning, and advised that several American missiles had been launched. Soviet protocol for such a scenario called for an immediate response by launching their own nukes in retaliation.
Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer in charge, and his job was to immediately alert the Soviet leadership to launch their own missiles. As he put it in an interview decades later: “I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it“. You and I can read this today because, as seen below, Petrov had the moral courage to pursue a different course of action.
In September of 1983, Cold War tensions were particularly high. Soviet leaders feared American president Ronald Reagan. They also suspected that a massive NATO training exercise is known as Able Archer, which was taking place at the time, might be a ruse, to conceal preparations for a surprise attack against the Warsaw Pact. In short, it was a bad time for nuclear attack warnings to go off in the USSR.
By nuclear warfare logic, the protocols of immediately launching your missiles upon receipt of a warning that the enemy had launched their nukes made sense on “use it or lose it” grounds. Given the short window – under half an hour – between missile launch detection and impact, the side that failed to immediately launch its own missiles risked having them destroyed in their silos. Stanislav Petrov’s job was to sound the alarm up the chain, which almost certainly would have led to a decision to launch Soviet missiles.
When he received an alarm that the US had launched nukes, Stanislav Petrov declined to alert his superiors. “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it … A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’“.
Petrov trusted his instincts – and the advise of radar operators who told him they registered no missiles – and dismissed the alert as a false alarm. Instead, he called the duty officer at Red Army headquarters and reported a systems malfunction. If he was wrong, mushroom clouds would have erupted all around the USSR within minutes. They did not. A few days later, Petrov received an official reprimand – not for what he did that night, but for mistakes in the logbook.
4. Martin Luther King Winged the ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech
Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s best-known quote, “I have a dream“, is one of the most famous lines ever delivered in an American speech. A highly memorable part of an inspiring oration delivered before the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, August 28th, 1963, the phrase resonated and caught on.
Indeed, that phrase probably did as much or more than anything else in Dr. King’s remarkable life to cement his place in the popular imagination as an icon in the struggle for civil rights. Relatively few people know that it was an improvisation.
When Dr. King walked up to the podium that memorable August day in 1963, he intended to deliver a written and prepared speech – copies of which had already been distributed to the press – that contained no mention of dreaming. However, mid-speech, while reading the seventh paragraph, King took a pause for breath. During that brief break, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, a good friend of King, shouted “Tell ‘em about the dream!”
King responded by pushing the prepared text aside, shifting gears, and giving himself over to the spirit. What followed was one of the greatest examples of rhetorical dexterity, as King abandoned the prepared speech halfway through, and began riffing and improvising the second half, with the “I have a dream” refrain.
Sometimes in history, the margin between catastrophe and salvation is rather thin and depends on little more than the vagaries and whims of fate. Few examples are more illustrative of that than the fate of the Japanese city of Kokura on August 9th, 1945. At 3:49 AM that morning, the Bockscar, a B-29 piloted by US Air Force Major Charles W. Sweeney, took off from Tinian Island in the Pacific, headed for Kokura.
In the bomb bay was Fat Man, a plutonium atomic bomb, more powerful than the uranium core weapon that had devastated Hiroshima three days earlier. As late-night turned to dawn and then morning, Kokura stirred and came to life, its inhabitants blissfully unaware that death was winging its way towards them. Weather observation planes reported clear skies over Kokura, and the Bockscar proceeded to a rendezvous point where it was supposed to link up with Big Stink, a B-29 tasked with filming the strike. Then fate intervened, and spared Kokura.
When Bockscar reached Kokura, Big Stink, with which it was scheduled to rendezvous, was nowhere to be seen. So Bockscar circled around, waiting for the film plane to show up. After 40 minutes of flying around, Major Sweeney gave up on Big Stink, and proceeded to Kokura. By then, however, clouds, plus smoke from a conventional bombing raid on a nearby city, had combined to obscure Kokura.
Over the next 50 minutes, Bockscar crisscrossed the skies above the target city, hoping for enough of a break in the cloud and smoke to drop its bomb. Below, the Kokurans went about their daily lives, innocently oblivious to the death circling above. After three failed bombing runs, Sweeney finally gave up, and flew at a new heading for his alternate target in case he was unable to bomb Kokura: Nagasaki. One city’s salvation proved to be another city’s doom.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading