Stanislav Petrov and Vasili Arkhipov are two Russian military officers who are not household names, but they both saved our world from a nuclear catastrophe.
Petrov died in September and Arkhipov died in 1998.
On Oct. 27, 1962, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arkhipov was a Russian submarine commander off Cuba who decided that the explosive depth charges dropped by U.S. destroyers were not associated with the opening rounds of World War III. Since the submarine was too deep to receive radio messages from Moscow, the decision to launch a nuclear missile into the United States had to be made based upon his judgment and he decided not to. The world was spared a nuclear holocaust.
In September 1983, Petrov was working at an early warning facility near Moscow. On the red screen at that facility a red flash appeared, warning that a missile had been launched in North Dakota and it was on a path toward Russia. Since it appeared to be only a single missile, Petrov believed it to be a system malfunction. However, within minutes five more apparent missiles appeared on the screen. Petrov somehow sustained his perception that this was not a strike. He was, of course, correct. The detection satellite was compromised by sun rays reflecting off clouds at two launch sites in North Dakota. Again, we were spared a nuclear disaster.
I lived through these two near disasters during the height of the Cold War. Their stories revive the fears and anxiety of that time. We had drills in school on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack and the threat hung over us like a dark, ominous cloud in our daily lives. In fact, my brother landed a good paying summer job going around the Pittsburgh area posting those black-and-yellow fallout shelter signs on public and private buildings. But the fear of nuclear warfare was instilled within us, and the same could be said of the Russian people. We inhabited a world that had not forgotten the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I quite frankly never thought that talk of a possible nuclear war would ever become the subject of headlines and military options. We now live in a time that such talk has suddenly emerged from North Korea and our own White House. The nuclear option has again become a reality. Think about what that means: the prospect of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is absolutely horrible. The estimates of loss of lives are beyond mind-numbing. While over a million people would die in North Korea and hundreds of thousands (including thousands of American soldiers) would die in South Korea, additional lives would be lost in Japan and, if even one North Korean missile reached Guam, countless more Americans would die. To add to the horror, the radiation exposure would cause even more loss of life in northeast China and the whole of Korea. For example, the distance from Tieling, China, a city of three million, to Pyongyang, North Korea, is the same as the distance from Sioux City to Des Moines.
President Trump rightly condemned and responded dramatically to Syrian dictator Assad using poison gas on his own people by stating that Assad’s action was killing babies. How many babies will die on the Korean peninsula if nuclear war unfolds?
We need to return to that period in history when we rightly understood and feared the use of nuclear arms by any country. As difficult as it may be, opening channels of communication with the leaders of North Korea is absolutely necessary. Those talks could be the beginning of future negotiations to defuse this pending nuclear apocalypse. Negotiating is not and should not be appeasement. Military action has to be considered the very last choice. China has much at stake in this current situation and I remain hopeful that Chinese leader Xi Jinping will continue to be a voice of moderation and perhaps draw the two sides into talking instead of threatening.
Recent events - both China freezing North Korean assets in China and a lowering of bombastic words from Kim Jong-un - are encouraging. We, as citizens, need to encourage diplomatic solutions and voice that conviction to our representatives, senators and president. If we do nothing, my greatest fear is that we stumble into a nuclear world war. So pick up a pen or send an e-mail to our leaders and, most important, pray that we sustain a livable world for our children and grandchildren.
Next week: Jim Wharton
A Sioux City resident, Jim Rixner is the retired executive director of the Siouxland Mental Health Center and a former member of the City Council. He and his wife, Bernadette, are the parents of three adult sons and the grandparents of seven.