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What To Do When The Warnings Sound
February 19, 2013 1:10 PM   Subscribe

It's hard to believe these days, what with Gazprom sponsoring the Champions League, that thirty years ago, if not for the actions of one man, Stanislav Petrov, (previously, previouslier) the world might have ended in a nuclear holocaust. His story long kept secret, only revealed in 1998, Petrov has finally been rewarded for his courage this week, as he became the latest recipient of the Dresden Peace Prize. Coincidently, this honour came only days after the meteorite strike in Russia, which as Charlie Stross points out, in the Cold War context of three decades ago might have ended in tragedy. Curious of how that might have panned out? Well, the Protect and Survive series at Alternate History.com shows what would've happened to Britain in a full scale nuclear war: it's not pretty.

As one of the most detailed and interesting nuclear war alternate histories, Protect and Survive has led to a lot of spinoffs by other posters, including looks at how America and the rest of the world faired.

For those wanting the nitty gritty of this possible nuclear holocaust, the full thread dedicated to the Protect and Survive series is also available.
posted by MartinWisse (31 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
Goddammit, MartinWisse, linking to AHWiki just isn't fair. I had work to do this afternoon.
posted by Etrigan at 1:35 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it's a neat story, but I've never quite understood why he's been singled out as a unique instance of stopping nuclear war. Both the US and USSR had rules of engagement which governed their own launch processes and both of them worked many, many times over the course of the Cold War (and truth be told, are still working today but with hair triggers a little more relaxed than they were). Yet he's treated as if he were the only person who ever noted a false alarm to be a false alarm, which is preposterous, and also given these awards as if he acted out of some idealism when he was just doing his job.
posted by dhartung at 1:37 PM on February 19, 2013


Ah, that's why this old story is floating around the internet this week.
posted by smackfu at 1:39 PM on February 19, 2013


dhartung, can you elaborate? Are there other well documented instances where human judgement was required to prevent retaliation? Is that what you are saying? Or are you saying that procedures put in place easily executed by anyone following them would have stopped retaliation?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:40 PM on February 19, 2013


I do not miss the Cold War. Not at all.

"Terrorist threat"? Oh, whatever, people. That's, like, chump change - I'm not going to be turned into a radioactive cinder along with several million other people who lived near the MA PAVE PAWS station.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:47 PM on February 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Well, the Protect and Survive series at Alternate History.com shows what would've happened to Britain in a full scale nuclear war: it's not pretty.

"The War Game" (1965) and "Threads" (1984) do this much, much more viscerally, IMO. The latter reduced me to tears as a thirteen year old.
posted by ryanshepard at 2:06 PM on February 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Threads was fucked up.
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 2:12 PM on February 19, 2013


For those keeping score at home, The War Game and Threads waited to appear until the sixth comment of this nuclear war thread. That's versus an over/under of nine comments, so call your bookie.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:13 PM on February 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


For those keeping score at home, The War Game and Threads waited to appear until the sixth comment of this nuclear war thread. That's versus an over/under of nine comments, so call your bookie.

With the possible exception of "Testament" and "When the Wind Blows", I'm hard pressed to think of anything that drives the horror home more effectively (especially if you have kids.) But yeah, maybe a derail - my apologies.
posted by ryanshepard at 2:24 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Testament and When the Wind Blows complete the roll call, along with The Day After.

Just poking a bit of fun at the way they inevitably come up in these discussions, no harm meant.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:37 PM on February 19, 2013


Yet he's treated as if he were the only person who ever noted a false alarm to be a false alarm

There are other cases of false alarms. However, most of them (like the saboteur bear incident) are cases where a false alarm was caught at a higher level by following some sort of an error-checking procedure. What makes Petrov stand out is that refusing to pass the warning along was both contrary to his orders and a matter of individual judgment.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:07 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


If this had happened 30 years ago today, we would all have died

I think it'd be more likely if it hit American soil. But it still highlights the fact we haven't disarmed. And destroying the earth over politics was a pretty dumb idea to begin with.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:28 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


And one Alternate-History-Wiki-walk later, I've learned about Hite's Law of Zeppelins:

”All [historical] Change Points, from Xerxes to the last presidential election, create worlds with clean, efficient Zeppelin traffic. Changing history may produce Zeppelins as an inevitable by-product, much as bombarding uranium produces gamma rays. Often, the quickest way to tell if you are in an Alternate History is to look up, rather than at a newspaper or encyclopedia. From this premise, it is not outside the realm of Plausibility that our history between 1900 and 1936 was, in fact, an Alternate History. It would, at least, explain a lot.”
posted by ormondsacker at 3:32 PM on February 19, 2013 [13 favorites]


I think it'd be more likely if it hit American soil

It would be depressingly likely in either case, but I think the situation with Operation RYAN that Charlie discusses made it especially risky if it had been a Soviet city (particularly Chelyabinsk, which was a center of Soviet nuclear research). The Soviet leadership was absolutely convinced Reagan was crazy enough to launch a pre-emptive strike, which I guess I can't blame them for, and the KGB was furiously correlating every scrap of incidental intelligence that might indicate one was coming. By '83 they had pretty much come to the point that they believed a sneak attack was probably imminent and that they would have had a window of only a few minutes to launch a retaliatory strike.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 4:25 PM on February 19, 2013


My husband is in the middle of an obsession about the early 80's cold war era, especially 1983. For months, he has been calling, texting and emailing me random facts about 1983. 99 luftbaloons? 83 War Games? 83 The Day After? 83. Every few days something new about 1983. There are all of these 80's songs that are aparently about nuclear war that never even registered with me... including OMD's Enola Gay (duh). We now have a totally 80's nuclear themed playlist for my 4 year old daughter to rock out to.

I heard all about Stanislav Petrov and how he saved the world. I'm pretty sure my husband has plans for a shrine to him in his head.

He hit gold a few weeks ago surfing the internet for 1983 related stuff when he found some guys thesis 1983:The Most Dangerous Year. He was super excited to find someone else interested in 1983 even more than he was.

Now I get to be all cool and show him the whole alternate timeline Protect and Survive which, somehow in all of his 1983 madness he missed. Thank you!
posted by Lapin at 4:56 PM on February 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Are there other well documented instances where human judgement was required to prevent retaliation?

Every. Single. One. The human element was never eliminated from either country's command and control process, Wargames and other movies notwithstanding.

And they really were pretty frequent. Here's one random-ish list of seven, none of which were the Petrov incident. Here's an expert discussion including this comment by Bruce Blair:

Every false alarm in US history that I have studied indicates that it was unique in every case, and not to be replicated in the future. But I'm not sure that there's much comfort to be drawn from that, because there is a history of false alarms on both sides, and they will recur, and the only question really is how often, and what's the context, and what's the nature of the false alarm, and in every case, it will be a unique situation.

There was an incident in 1979 recounted by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been alerted by NORAD of the necessity of waking the President due to an apparent Soviet strike involving 2200 incoming ICBMs. According to him, the erroneous information was due to the mistaken insertion of training exercise tapes, and was corrected with just "one minute" to spare. In other words, these were scarily common, and often full of almost comical blunders. The only difference between these is that somehow chance gave us Petrov's name, but not the name of the anonymous officer within NORAD who reviewed the situation and found the error.
posted by dhartung at 5:02 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


We always mope about Threads, but no one ever mentions that Red Storm Rising is a fun, rollicking romp through WWIII.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:13 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Red Storm Rising doesn't belong in this thread. The Americans win, there's no nukes. There's not even any chemical weapons. There is a heartwarming romance however.

The one book which should get mentioned in these threads (no pun intended) and never does, is Warday. It's the story of the United States five years after the war. In this universe, the exchange is limited. After flinging a dozen missiles or so apiece, the war machines of both the Soviets and the United States break down before any further damage can be done. The vast majority of the country comes out relatively unscathed.

The authors, in a nice metafictional touch, make themselves into the chief protagonists and go around the country, making observations on the local conditions, interviewing locals. Much of the book is given over to these monologues from various contenders and bystanders, and is essentially in the same style of World War Z, though with more of a meta-narrative than WWZ had.

And the book came out in 1984 so it's perfect for those who want to relive those heady days of Reagan scaring the shit out of all of us. It's not as depressing as Threads, but it's view of a broken nation in rapid decline is still painful, at least for Americans. The Brits, however, may find the scenario quite enjoyable as they come out of the war unscathed and they get to lord it over us a bit.
posted by honestcoyote at 6:49 PM on February 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Fun fact: AHWiki is but one of two major alternate history wikis. It's the official wiki for AlternateHistory.com, but there happens to exist also the Alternate History Wiki on Wikia, with its own community and set of timelines.

He hit gold a few weeks ago surfing the internet for 1983 related stuff when he found some guys thesis 1983:The Most Dangerous Year. He was super excited to find someone else interested in 1983 even more than he was.

He's gonna love this. On the latter of the two AH wikis is 1983: Doomsday, an absolutely massive collaborative project that attempts to extrapolate the world from the war to the modern day, complete with headlines from places such as the Kentucky Commonwealth to the Emirate of Bukhara. It's daunting to get into, just because there's so much content in its post-apocalyptic world and it's not narrative-driven like Protect and Serve is, but it's definitely worth a few hours of aimless browsing.
posted by Apocryphon at 7:31 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Many of you have probably seen films that were inspired by them (Threads, When the Wind Blows, etc.) but if you have never seen the Protect and Survive videos and would like to have horrible nightmares forever, I will leave these here for you.


Part one
Part two
Part three

If, however, you don't have that much time, and would still like to be traumatized, you can watch the part about casualties.
posted by louche mustachio at 7:31 PM on February 19, 2013


The Americans win, there's no nukes...

Not entirely historically impossible given the American Flexible Response doctrine (details). It called for a prolonged conventional war with the Soviets if they invaded West Germany, ramping up to tactical nuclear weapons only if NATO troops were being overrun and pushed into Belgium, and a full-on strategic nuclear exchange only as a last resort. Needless to say, this policy was not popular in West Germany.

In some ways it was a lot less safe for the world than the old all-in Massive Retaliation policy. It's the grey areas in Flexible Response that make it unsettling. Could the Soviets occupy West Berlin without starting a world-ending nuclear exchange? Almost certainly. How about storming through the Fulda gap into Frankfurt and stopping there? Maybe. It was based on an illusion of control, the idea that the process of escalation up to nuclear war could be made rational. Massive retaliation was, in its crazy way, better suited to human beings. It drew a nice clear red line: don't start any kind of a war or we might all die.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:38 PM on February 19, 2013


One more massive Cold War nuclear war timeline: Amerigo Vespucci of AlternateHistory.com's Cuban Missile War.
posted by Apocryphon at 7:46 PM on February 19, 2013


Not entirely historically impossible

Agreed that Red Storm Rising would be plausible. Even if the Americans were being pushed into Belgium or if the Soviets were pushed back to Berlin, I think there's a very strong chance neither side would launch an all out nuclear attack. Both sides knew not only would there be no victory, but neither side would exist after such an exchange. The novel The Third World War (1979), which is also a meta-fictional, imaginary historical document similar to Warday, imagines the war ending with the Soviets nuking Birmingham as a warning to the allies to stop their counter-offensive in Germany. NATO responds by obliterating Minsk. The Soviet people rebel against their regime in fear of a total nuclear war and the war ends.

But Red Storm Rising doesn't belong in these sorts of discussions. It's an interesting book for depicting one possible outcome of a conventional war, and Clancy came up with a very plausible reason why the USSR would start a war which didn't involve turning the Russians into moustache-twirling bad guys. So that's a plus for the book. But the overall tone is a bit jarring since Clancy does make the whole mess into The Good War Part 2, and almost all the characters get happy endings and seem mostly untraumatized by the horrors they just endured.

One very interesting thing about the book is how large parts of it were simulated. Clancy, and his uncredited co-author Larry Bond, used the naval wargame Harpoon to simulate the fleet battles and submarine actions, and the results were put into the book largely unchanged. This may be the first time a mainstream novel was created using procedural techniques.

[If you want a similar 80's era book with only conventional war, no nukes, told completely from the view of various Soviet soldiers (who are victorious, sorta), and is all about the "War is Hell" aspect, Ralph Peters's Red Army would do the trick.]

Good god, I read too much of this sort of thing in my misbegotten Cold War childhood. Feh.
posted by honestcoyote at 8:59 PM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Protect and Survive was a pretty good read. Massively optimistic for a nuclear war scenario, but pretty horrifying nonetheless.
posted by happyroach at 10:34 PM on February 19, 2013


Yeah, in real reality, the difference between optimists and pessimists regarding Britain's survival chances is whether you think it would take 6 h-bombs or ten h-bombs detonated off the west coast to make the country uninhabitable.

Protect and Survive loads the dice a bit with a couple of fortunate Soviet missile failures, is somewhat more skeptical about nuclear winter than it warrants, while much too optimistic about how much of the command structure in Britain would remain and how effective it could be.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:07 PM on February 19, 2013


Ralph Peters's Red Army

I read that a couple of years ago, knowing Peters only as one of the more insane rightwing war nuts, who'd be urging Bush to nuke Iran and France on a weekly basis, but that book was surprisingly good.

It's sort of the anti-Red Storm Rising, as it's the massed hordes of tough Russian soldiers that win the war against the overwhelming technological might of the west, instead of vice versa. It's also steeped in Team B wingnut fears about how much better the Russians are than the west, how much more willing to fight and the novel ends actually as the war draws into a stalemate, the Russians may actually be pushed back but the West German government surrenders...
posted by MartinWisse at 11:12 PM on February 19, 2013


"The War Game" (1965) and "Threads" (1984) do this much, much more viscerally, IMO.

Yeah, but I'd already linked to them last year. And besides which, I can't watch them. I had enough nuclear nightmares just watching the news when I was nine, don't need them again three decades later...
posted by MartinWisse at 11:15 PM on February 19, 2013


My Red Storm Rising comment was intended to be a joke, but... nevermind.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:43 AM on February 20, 2013


Thanks, dhartung, that helps.

Bruce Blair, as quoted by you: Every false alarm in US history that I have studied indicates that it was unique in every case, and not to be replicated in the future.

Number 7 on your random list is actually two false alarms, the second a replication of the first. It is also the only one that is even vaguely analogous to what Petrov encountered. The other six are various versions where there was no explicit signal indicating launch of an attack, but rather intelligence signs that something might be afoot. I wish there was more detail in the 7th incident, because it indicates nuclear-armed planes were scrambled and missiles readied, but doesn't really go into how the decision to carry through was reversed. It may be the wisdom of a single person in that case as well.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:15 AM on February 20, 2013


Sadly the 1983 incident is not unique. I can think of at least three declassified instances where one person's alternate decision would have caused nuclear war. On 10/27/1962 if Vasili Arkhipov had agreed with the other two officers, the Russian submarine B-59 would have launched a nuclear-tipped torpedo against the US destroyer harassing it. A week later, British spy-handler Gervase Cowell elected not to pass on the pre-arranged signal from the KGB mole Oleg Penkovsky that meant a Soviet attack was imminent. November 1979, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened and told of a massive Soviet nuclear launch underway and came within a minute of calling then-President Carter, presumably to launch a counter-strike.
posted by PandaMomentum at 10:21 AM on February 20, 2013


ytmnd
posted by kliuless at 3:11 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


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