Who is the greatest person that history has forgotten?
Answer by Joseph Koppenhout:
is Stanislav Petrov.
He, with no hyperbole or exaggeration, saved the world.
Stanislav had the rather dull sounding job title of “deputy chief for combat algorithms at Sepukhov-15.” His job was to watch a computer and if a small red light went off on the computer to give the order to a very twitchy boss.
The light would indicate that a full scale nuclear attack had been launched on his country, the USSR, by the USA or any other foreign enemy.
On September 26th 1983, at just after midnight, the light blinked on.
The Soviet leadership at the time was on hair-trigger alert. The aging leadership of the USSR was sure that the US was about to launch a strike, as they had seen from the bellicose language of their president, Ronald Reagan. Only a few weeks earlier, a South Korean plane had flown into Soviet airspace just as if it was testing their defences. There was anger and fear; to many on both sides it seemed only a matter of time.
There was no time to check the computers for a bug, no time to check for a flaw in the system.
To Petrov it seemed however unlikely that this was a full scale American attack; it only consisted of 5 missiles; they would need thousands to eliminate the entire Soviet weapon stockpile.
So he told his superiors, ready to launch a nuclear strike, that it was a flaw in the system. There was no Soviet retaliation to what was eventually revealed to be a computer bug.
If it had been a different man on duty, if he had decided to just follow orders, then within a few days half a billion people would be dead.
He did not.
He saved us all.
After this, very little came of the incident. His competence was noted by his superiors, who promised him a reward, which never materialised. He left the Soviet army a few months later on health grounds and suffered a nervous breakdown. He has since been given several small (in proportion to what he did) awards, such as a world’s citizen award from the UN and a Dresden Prize from Germany.