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When personal courage saved the world

In actual decision-making situations like the one Petrov faced on his watch at the command centre, group dynamics, not geopolitical considerations, prevail.

Torgeir E. Fjærtoft
10 November 2013

We should celebrate personal courage this autumn. We have survived for 30 years thanks to the personal courage of one man. He alone saved the world from nuclear holocaust.  Deep in the Soviet command centre for their vast and apocalyptic nuclear force during the most dangerous phase of the Cold War in 1983, Stanislav Petrov made the decision to overrule the technical alert systems when computer malfunction led to false alarms about a US first strike.

Remarkable courage

The decapitating first strike is the ultimate nightmare in the nuclear balance of terror. Thanks to the ongoing hostile political confrontation during the so-called ‘Second Cold War’, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviet leadership became convinced that the west was actually planning a nuclear attack. This dangerous atmosphere fostered fundamental misunderstandings of intentions. The political context makes Stanislav Petrov’s courage all the more remarkable.

Philip Zimbardo finds group dynamics cause evil behaviour

In actual decision-making situations like the one Petrov faced on his watch at the command centre, group dynamics, not geopolitical considerations, prevail. The psychologist Phillip Zimbardo has shown how human behavior is decisively shaped by group pressure. When the enemy is dehumanized, as it was during the deep-frozen Cold War in 1983,  these group dynamics can in Zimbardo’s view cause normal people to commit even extreme evil. Nuclear war is the ultimate evil human act. The number one risk factor, in Zimbardo’s view, is obedience to authority, which, he points out, is a universal risk because obedience will always be the quality most cherished in employees in all systems and organizations.

Personal courage as an  antidote to group dynamics

The only antidote to evil induced by group dynamics, according to Zimbardo, is the individual courage to resist. As anyone who has worked in a hierarchy will know, cowardice and subservience seem to approach being an iron law even in inconsequential matters.  Zimbardo’s prescribed antidote to evil, the personal courage to resist, may therefore at first sight lack credibility. But Petrov’s example shows that it can work, even in a harsh dictatorship and against a background of hostile political confrontation. 

There is one other well known example of decisive personal courage that arose out of the Soviet Union. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Vasili Arkhipov successfully resisted pressure from his two fellow commanders to fire nuclear arms that in all likelihood would have precipitated a nuclear holocaust. He was on board a Soviet submarine armed with nuclear charges on their torpedoes when the US navy dropped depth charges on them. Since the submarine was submerged, there was no chance to contact Moscow to find out if war had started or not, so the group dynamics between three men under extreme pressure decided the fate of mankind.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Map of the western hemisphere showing the range of the nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba, used during the secret meetings on the Cuban crisis. Wikimedia/Central Intelligence Agency. Public domain.

Will we act with courage when we are called upon?

It is a paradox that it was under the most adverse circumstances of the Soviet dictatorship that personal courage was decisive in avoiding nuclear war in two known cases. Why should we not show personal courage who live in democracies under the rule of law?  Those of us who are not among the few deciding when to start a nuclear holocaust, nevertheless find ourselves frequently in situations when we face the choice of acting ethically or in a cowardly manner.

Perhaps a more relevant example for us than Petrov and Arkhipov is Bartolome de las Casas. He stood up for the rights of the indigenous people in the Americas as early as the 1500’s when he was part of the Spanish colonial administration. In Zimbardo’s terms, he resisted their “dehumanization”.  Today, we face many similar cases of dehumanization of asylum seekers and others.

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