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How Trump Inadvertently Eulogized an Anti-Nuclear Russian Folk Hero at the U.N.

In 1983, Stanislav Petrov saved the world from a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Decades later, his reasoned calm is sorely missed.
Stanislav Petrov, pictured here in 2016.

Stanislav Petrov, pictured here in 2016.

Just after midnight on September 27th, 1983, a Soviet early warning station received a signal from an Oko missile-detection satellite that appeared to correspond with an incoming Minuteman ICBM, presumably launched by the United States military. Over the next few minutes, the satellite reported four more missile launches. According to a National Security Agency history detailed in Nate Jones' Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War, Russian military anxiety over airspace sovereignty had "escalated into a paranoid intensity" in recent months, the likes of which had resulted in the shooting down of commercial Korean Air Lines Flight 007 weeks earlier. Once news of a U.S. missile launch traveled up the Soviet chain of command, defense officials would launch their own retaliatory nuclear strike within minutes. Nobody would survive the resulting nuclear hellfire.

It was Stanislav Petrov, then a lieutenant colonel and the lone duty officer that evening, who averted World War III. According to Jones, Petrov's "gut instinct" convinced him that a preemptive nuclear strike by the U.S., despite the Cold War political tradition of apocalyptic brinksmanship, made no sense. Without additional data to corroborate the readings from the Oko satellite, Petrov, knowing that even a glimmer of panic rippling up the chain of command would result in a catastrophic nuclear exchange, insisted that the signal was a false alarm and declined to alert his superiors. "All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders—but I couldn't move," Petrov told the BBC on the 30th anniversary of the incident. "I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan."

Petrov's heroism—a victory of reason over panic, apparent in his clear-eyed assessment of that day—went uncelebrated. While he was praised by his superiors for averting a nuclear holocaust, he was reportedly reprimanded for improperly filing paperwork surrounding the incident, likely in retribution for embarrassing his commanding officers and exposing a massive gap in the Soviet early warning system. Petrov was transferred to another post and given early retirement from the Red Army in 1984, after which he suffered a nervous breakdown. The incident didn't become public knowledge until the publication of Soviet missile defense chief Yuriy Votintsev's memoirs in 1998. Petrov himself died in obscurity back in May, living alone in a Moscow suburb on a state pension, with news of his death only emerging this week; according to NPR, initial reports of his death "apparently went unrecognized at the time," despite his status as a Cold War folk hero.

President Donald Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19th, 2017, in New York City.

President Donald Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19th, 2017, in New York City.

It seems appropriate, then, that the most powerful eulogy for Petrov was delivered at the beating heart of the international community—and it didn't even mention his name. In his first appearance before the United Nations in his ostensible role of "leader of the free world," President Donald Trump hammered the drums of war in response to increasingly heightened provocations by a nuclear North Korea. "The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea," Trump told the astonished assembly. "Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime."

Trump and Kim have been locked in a terrifying cycle of nuclear brinksmanship ever since the former threatened the "fire and fury" of U.S. military might in response to verbal broadsides from Pyongyang, but the overt threat of total annihilation in the halls of the U.N.—the same venue where Nobel Peace Prize recipient Barack Obama brokered a historic thaw with Iran in 2013—reportedly filled the hall with "loud, startled murmurs," Reuters reports. Even though Trump reportedly stuck to his prepared script, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was photographed with his head in his hands.

To a certain extent, one might assume Trump's bellicosity is simply an updated version of Richard Nixon's "Madman Theory"—act as hawkish and unpredictable as possible to scare your enemies into submission. As Evan Osnos reported in The New Yorker in the week before Trump's U.N. appearance, even the North Korean officials tasked with interpreting America's political and military posture can't read the president through the morass of his tweetstorms. "When he speaks, I have to figure out what he means, and what his next move will be. This is very difficult," one official told Osnos. "He might be irrational—or too smart. We don't know."

This is the fundamental problem of Trump's Nixonian brinksmanship: It doesn't work when both sides are being run by madmen. And Kim Jong Un, who has executed officials with anti-aircraft guns and fed his uncle to a starving pack of dogs, is certainly a madman. While the American nuclear apparatus has marched forward uninterrupted ever since the end of the Cold War, the diplomatic apparatus that prevents nuclear apocalypse has remained the last channel for reason in an age of panic, from the Washington—Moscow "Red Telephone" installed after the Cuban Missile Crisis to the relatively consistent engagements between U.S. and North Korean officials that preceded the deterioration of relations wrought by George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech. Communication and deconfliction require normalcy, and normalcy is not the current watchword of political life in Washington, D.C.

One of the more popular historiographical theories regarding the end of the Cold War comes from historian John Lewis Gaddis' assertion that real power of the world shifted to "intangible" psychological attitudes of hope and conviction embodied by leaders who, by virtue of literally having their finger on the button, are elevated from "ordinary" life to the world historical stage. But the spiral of Trump and Kim suggests a more appealing reality to post-Cold War nuclear politics. Call it "Petrov's Curse": The most rational actors are usually at the bottom of the chain of command, under the police officers and civil servants who actually wield the coercive power of the state—and it's they who will actually save us from nuclear annihilation.

Petrov may have languished in obscurity after saving the planet, but there's hope that his obituary was scrawled between the lines of Trump's bellicose address to the U.N. It's more likely, however, that it's the civil servants who are spearheading the so-called "resist[ance] from below," the actual organs of the state, who will stand tall against the tendrils of nuclear insanity. In his infamous 1961 speech to the U.N., President John F. Kennedy described the imminent danger of nuclear holocaust as "a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness." If anything, Trump's U.N. speech has reminded the world of the ever-present danger of nuclear destruction—and the next time ambiguity reigns in the delicate dance between nuclear regimes, Stanislav Petrov may not be there to save the world again.