A cheery topic of conversation in the 1980s was what you would do with your allotted four minutes of life, should the early warning sirens of an impending nuclear attack sound for real. Who would you want to be with? Could you get to them in time? What would you do if you were with them? What would you do if you weren’t? And in those days of one telephone, tied to the wall in the hall, how would you get to it first? Who would you call? What would you say?
In those days, the threat of nuclear war was ever-present. When the early warning sirens were tested, my heart would stop for a second before I remembered it was a test. I don’t really remember choosing to watch the news, but it was on every evening in our house, and nuclear war was a popular theme. And of course it popped up in song lyrics from time to time: Frankie Goes To Holywood with their hit “Two Tribes”, ostensibly about any arguing factions but particularly relevant to the nuclear powerhouses of the time. Even unlikely social commentators, Duran Duran mention it, albeit slightly bizarrely, in their first UK number 1 “Is There Something I Should Know”.
What I didn’t realise at the time, was that but for the combined intellect and instinct of one Russian gentlemen, those sirens would have sounded not as a test, but to signal a countdown of our last four minutes on earth. Luckily for us, our thoughts on what we’d do with our last four minutes were never put to the test; because on this day, 26th September, 33 years ago, the Russian duty commander at the Oko nuclear early warning facility, Stanislav Petrov, chose to ignore what his computers were telling him. Which was that five nuclear missiles had been fired by the USA, and their target was the USSR. His instinct told him that if the Americans were going to start a war, they’d fire more than five missiles, and his intellect backed him up.
As a result the USSR did not start a nuclear war with the USA and it’s NATO allies, and I am sitting here, in Loudons Cafe in Edinburgh, writing this blog post, still speculating about what I’d do in my last four minutes, but not seriously thinking that I’ll have occasion to find out. So thank you, Stanislav Petrov, for keeping your cool, and trusting your instinct and what you knew about your adversary. Just out of interest, what would you do with your last four minutes?