The computer glitch that almost caused World War 3

Matt Lillywhite
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Let me tell you why the world almost ended in 1983…

During President Reagan’s tenure, military spending skyrocketed while the Soviets became increasingly paranoid about a nuclear attack. The combination of those factors created a volatile atmosphere, with both countries fearing the possibility of a miscalculation leading to nuclear war.

Tragically, that’s what happened on September 26, 1983. A false alarm sent the United States and Soviet Union into a frenzy of fear, paranoia, and uncertainty. But one man saved the world from nuclear war caused by a computer glitch. 

It’s a fascinating story…

The False Alarm Happened In A Soviet Bunker

Stanislav Petrov was monitoring the Soviet Union’s early-warning missile detection system. Suddenly, the alarms blared to life, indicating that the United States had launched a nuclear attack.

The computer readouts suggested that several missiles were headed straight for the Soviet Union. And to prevent his country from being destroyed, Petrov needed to act fast.

“I had all the data to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack,” he said in an interview with BBC Russia. “If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it. The siren howled. But I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it.”

According to Soviet protocol, Petrov should have immediately reported the incoming missiles to his superiors and prepared for a retaliatory nuclear strike. The Soviet Union had thousands of missiles (and was prepared to use them). But something about the situation didn’t feel right. Stanislav, therefore, made the bold decision to disregard protocol and dismiss the attack as a false alarm.

Petrov was willing to risk everything to avert a nuclear confrontation. “When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” Petrov said in an interview after the incident. “You can do little damage with just five missiles.” Thankfully, Petrov’s instincts proved correct, and his actions stopped the world from being destroyed. 

“A 1979 report by Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment estimated that a full-scale Soviet assault on the US would kill 35 to 77 percent of the US population,” per Vox. “And it’s likely hundreds of millions more would have died once the conflict disrupted global temperatures and severely hampered agriculture.”

Petrov single-handedly prevented World War 3 from happening. He also saved millions of people from dying in a nuclear apocalypse. But why did the Soviet early-warning system malfunction?

We’ll discuss that in the next section of this article…

The Computer Glitch That (Almost) Caused World War 3

The Soviet Union had a special satellite that watched the Earth’s horizon to see if missiles were being launched, per PBS. This was different from how the United States watched for missile launches because their satellites looked at the entire Earth (and were far more accurate).

Sadly, the Soviet’s unique strategy came with a risk: naturally occurring phenomena like clouds could be mistaken for missile launches. 

On September 26, 1983, the sun, satellite, and American missile fields aligned in a way that maximized sunlight reflected from high-altitude clouds. Thus, the Soviet early-warning system thought it detected five incoming missiles and sounded the alarm.

Following the frightening incident on September 26, 1983, the Soviet Union took measures to ensure that a similar computer glitch wouldn’t happen again. However, the fear and tension resulting from the false alarm lingered for many years afterward.

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Matt Lillywhite publishes national news and local stories. He can be reached via email at


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