The Cold War stood as the United States and Soviet Union armed each with far more missiles than needed to wipe out all life on the surface of the Earth. There would be no winner in World War 3. Both sides knew that the best they could hope was to destroy the other as brutally as they themselves were destroyed. Key to this idea of “mutual assured destruction” was finding out as quickly as possible that the other side had launched, thus enabling missiles to fire back before being destroyed in their silos.
In the fall of 1983, political intelligence was on edge. The Soviets had shot down a South Korean airliner that had violated their airspace, killing 269 civilians, many of them American, including U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald. Although the diplomatic fires had been nearly put out, both sides were anxious, especially the Soviet Union with the seemingly gun-happy American President Reagan. Soon after, NATO began exercises in Able Archer 83, which simulated escalating conflict and a first-strike nuclear release. The matter was not strictly related, but the KGB did not want to risk the exercise being a cover for preparation to attack the Soviet Union.
Just after midnight on September 26, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was on duty when the Oko system's computers reported a launch from the United States headed toward the Soviet Union. It was a single missile, and a nuclear attack would certainly be all-out, so Petrov noted the alarm but decided to declare it false. When more launches began to be detected, Petrov became nervous. Five missiles were now headed at the Soviet Union, and it was his duty to report. In a hurried decision, he called his superiors with the news.
Moscow immediately surged into activity. Panicked, sleepless people began to question the fallibility of the new system as well as their own lives, which very well could be at their ends. Land-based radar would not pick up incoming missiles until minutes before they arrived, leaving scant time to launch the counterstrike. With only slight information, the order to attack was given.
In reality, the missiles were glitches within the Oko system. This would not be determined until the next morning, long after the strike on the United States. In what had been the evening hours, the Americans were hit in major cities and military bases. Millions were vaporized as they sat down to dinner. The American systems had detected the launches, and so their own counter-assault began, slaughtering millions more in Russia. Electromagnetic interference destroyed most communications, leaving the rest of the world in frozen wonder at what had happened. As news came to light over the day, it was obvious that the worst had come.
Trade winds picked up the fallout, spreading it through the northern hemisphere. Europeans tried to flee en masse, which turned the entire continent into a war zone. For months, survivors would suffer radiation poisoning and widespread destruction simply trying to escape. Nothing remained of the vast continents of North America, Europe, and north Asia except deadly wastelands filled with wreckage that could not be harvested for years or centuries.
The southern hemisphere fared better, but fear, material shortages, and famines during the long Nuclear Winters would cause the deaths of billions more. Australia and South Africa led the nations of the British Commonwealth in restoring something of world order around the Indian Ocean. Much of their resources would be spent harboring refugees and helping to end the trauma of the millions poisoned in India. Meanwhile, Argentina stepped up as leader of South America, uniting the countries around it in fascist extremism. Enemies of the state were banished to northern Brazil, where the edge of livability was a horrid fringe of disease, famine, and death.
In reality, Petrov second-guessed the system. It was apparent within minutes that Oko, which he had not fully trusted in his opinion, was flawed. He later said, “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” and reflected that launching only five missile was ludicrous. Later, the glitched launches would be determined as fluke angles of sunlight in the atmosphere, and Soviet commanders were embarrassed of breaks in the system. While initially praised but brushed aside in a cover-up, Petrov would be honored at the United Nations in 2006. Even though layers of agreement among Soviet leadership were required for nuclear launch, he was, arguably, the man who single-handedly saved the Earth. No First Use and defensive-only policies have since come into effect for most of the nuclear-wielding nations.