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The Red Button
Photo: Christian Delbert
On September 1, 1983, Russian jet interceptors shot down a Korean airliner that had drifted into Soviet airspace due to a navigational error. The plane carried 269 civilians, some of which were American citizens. All passengers and crew were killed. At the time of the incident, the Soviets mistakenly believed the aircraft to be on a spy mission.

As a result of this tragedy, tensions were high between the U.S. and Russia. In fact, the Soviets believed the U.S. just might retaliate with a missile attack.

With this background in place, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov pulled a double shift three weeks later, on September 25th, because a co-worker was ill. Petrov worked deep inside secret bunker Serpukhov – 15, monitoring missiles that could potentially be launched from the U.S. to the Soviet Union.

Shortly after midnight, an ear piercing alarm sounded and Petrov’s screen turned bright red. The instruments in front of him indicated the U.S. had just launched five missiles, presumably carrying nuclear warheads. According to Petrov’s calculations, he had about 15 minutes to sanction a counter attack before the American missiles would strike Russian soil.

Incoming Attack?

If Petrov pushed the flashing red button on his desk, he would confirm an incoming attack to the Commander in Chief of the Russian missile defense, as well as the highest Soviet leader, Jurij Andropov. A nuclear counter attack would have likely followed.

As Petrov wrestled with his decision, 120 engineers and military officers waited in anguished chaos.

Petrov kept his head and reasoned that if the U.S. was starting a nuclear war, they would have fired off an entire arsenal of missiles at the U.S.S.R. rather than just five. He also studied the ground based radar screen and could discern no incoming missiles. Calmly, he reasoned this was a false alarm, a malfunction in the equipment. Petrov decided not to push the red button.

Petrov’s reasoned and calculated decision proved to be correct. The Soviet satellite system had given an erroneous signal of imminent attack. But because of one mans courage and self control, nuclear war was avoided by a hairs breath and millions of lives were saved.
In life, we sometimes feel pressured by peers and or circumstances to make a popular or impulsive decision rather than one that is patiently reasoned through. The Bible encourages us in Proverbs 16:32, “Better to be patient than powerful; better to have self-control than to conquer a city.”

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By Kathy A. Lewis. Copyright © 2009 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines. Scripture taken from the NEW LIVING TRANSLATION
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