In 1983 We Came Closer to Nuclear War Than We Knew: A Cautionary Tale

At the brink without knowing it

It was a time of heightened tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, when communications channels were deteriorating and each side was misinterpreting the motivations of the other. It resulted in what may be the closest brush with nuclear holocaust in the Cold War. Even more frightfully, one side did not realize the danger until after the fact.

In the second week of November 1983, NATO conducted Able Archer, an exercise simulating escalation to nuclear war in a European conflict between the west and the Soviets. The Soviet leadership, fearful the U.S. was planning a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union, strongly suspected Able Archer was no exercise, but a cover for the real thing. Novel aspects of the exercise fortified their belief. Soviet nuclear forces went on hair trigger alert, and leaders may have contemplated a preemptive strike. The U.S. military, aware of unusual Soviet actions but unaware of their meaning, proceeded with the exercise.

The time is regarded by many experts as the Cold War moment with the greatest danger of nuclear conflict since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. confronted the Soviets over the placement of nuclear missiles on that island. But in contrast to the Cuban crisis, the U.S. was blithe to the danger. Robert Gates, then CIA deputy director, later said, “We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.”

It took years for western authorities to fully understand the danger with which the world was confronted in Able Archer ’83. They could not comprehend that Soviet leaders actually feared a first strike, and dismissed indications emerging shortly after the exercise as Soviet propaganda. But as the picture grew clearer, Ronald Reagan became aware that his own heated rhetoric during the first three years of his presidential administration fed Soviet fears, and instead successfully negotiated agreements with the Soviets to reduce nuclear weapons.

Today those agreements are either cancelled or on life support, while conflicts between the west and the Soviet Union’s successor state, the Russian Federation, are at a level unparalleled even in the Cold War. Communications have broken down and nuclear dangers are intensifying. Meanwhile, tensions are increasing with China, another nuclear-armed state. Days after the 77th anniversaries of the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the August 9 immolation of Nagasaki, the world has justified reasons to ask whether we will reach the 78th without nuclear weapons being used again.

In such a time, it is vital to recall the lessons of Able Archer ’83, about what happens when tensions between great powers build up while communications break down. Fortunately, recent years have seen publication of several books that delve deeply into the crisis, what led up to it, and its aftermath. 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, by Taylor Downing, and The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983 by Mark Ambinder, tell the story from slightly different angles. Able Archer 83: The Secret NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War by Nate Jones is a more compact telling of the tale accompanied by original source material pried from secret archives.

Advantage first strike

The backdrop of the Able Archer crisis is perhaps the gravest fact of nuclear weapons, and why, as this series will underscore, they must be abolished. In nuclear conflict, the overwhelming advantage goes to the side that strikes first. Ambinder cites the first broad Soviet nuclear war assessment, conducted in the early 1970s, which found, “The Soviet military would be virtually powerless after a first strike.” Leonid Brezhnev, then Soviet leader, took part in an exercise modeling this. He was “visibly terrified,” reported Col. Andrei Danilevich, who oversaw the assessment.

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Viktor Surikov, a veteran of the Soviet missile building complex, later told U.S. Department of Defense interviewer John Hines, that in light of this knowledge, the Soviets had shifted to strategizing a preemptive strike. If they thought the U.S. was preparing to launch, they would have launched first. In fact, they modeled such a preemption in the Zapad 1983 exercise.

Ambinder writes, “As the arms race accelerated, Soviet war plans evolved. No longer did they anticipate responding to a first strike from the U.S. Instead, all plans for major wars assumed that the Soviets would find a way to strike first, because, quite simply, the side that did attack first would have the best chance to win.”

The Soviets believed the U.S. had as well. “Surikov stated he believed that U.S. nuclear policymakers were well aware that there were tremendous differences in levels of damage to the United States under conditions where the United States succeeded in preemptively striking Soviet missiles and control systems before the launched  . . , “ Jones writes. Hines acknowledged “that the United States ‘certainly had done such analysis’ of a preemptive first strike against the Soviet Union.”

The U.S. indeed was indeed implementing “launch on warning” systems for when an attack was perceived as imminent.  Driving nuclear strategies was the visceral fear among leaders on both sides that they would be the first targets of a nuclear attack.

“  . . . as the Cold War progressed, both superpowers perceived themselves as increasingly vulnerable to a decapitating nuclear strike,” Jones writes.  The other side would attempt to win a nuclear war by decapitating leadership before it could issue orders to retaliate. “If the U.S. could wipe out the leadership at the beginning of a war, it could dictate the terms for its termination  . . ,” Ambinder writes. When Russian leaders before the current war proclaimed Ukraine NATO membership a “red line” because missiles placed there could strike Moscow in a few minutes, it was a reprise of those fears.

Ambinder does the most detailed dive into how both sides coped with fears of decapitation and planned to secure the ability to retaliate.  The U.S. was increasingly concerned that Soviet missile submarines were becoming undetectable and could lob a missile from off the coast to hit Washington, D.C. in around six minutes. Jimmy Carter, well aware of the situation, ordered a review and put in place a system to ensure a successor would be able to order retaliation and fight on even after his White House was struck.

Soviet fears intensify

Plans to continue a nuclear war beyond a first strike, deliberately leaked to the press, stirred Soviet fears that one was being planned. These fears were brought to high pitch by plans to site intermediate range Pershing II and cruise missiles in western Europe, in response to Soviet deployment of its own SS-20 intermediate missiles.

“The Soviets believed that the Pershing IIs could reach Moscow,” Ambinder writes, though this might not necessarily have been the case. “That meant the Soviet leadership could be five minutes away from decapitation at any moment once they were deployed. Brezhnev, among others, understood this in his gut.”

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In a major speech to leaders of Warsaw Pact nations in 1983, Yuri Andropov, who succeeded Brezhnev after his death in 1982, called those missiles “‘a new round in the arms race’ that was quite different to previous ones,” Downing writes. “It was clear to him these missiles were not about ‘deterrence’ but were ‘designed for a future war,’ and were intended to give the U.S. the ability to take out the Soviet leadership in a ‘limited nuclear war’ that America believed it could both ‘survive and win in a protracted nuclear conflict.’”

Andropov, among top Soviet leaders, was the one who most fervently believed the U.S. intended war. In a secret speech in May 1981, when he was still KGB chief, he decried Reagan and “to the astonishment of many of those present, he claimed there was a strong likelihood of a nuclear first strike by the U.S.,” Downing writes. Brezhnev was one of those in the room.

That was when the KGB and its military counterpart, the GRU, implemented a top priority global intelligence effort to sniff out early indications the U.S. and west were preparing for war. Known as RYaN, the Russian acronym for nuclear missile strike, it included hundreds of indicators, everything from movements at military bases, to the locations of national leadership, to blood drives and even whether the U.S. was moving original copies of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Though spies were skeptical, the incentive to generate reports demanded by leadership generated a certain confirmation bias, tending to fortify leaders’ fears.

Ultimately, RYaN messages sent to the KGB London embassy station during Able Archer ‘83, leaked by a double agent, would prove to skeptical western leaders how frightened the Soviets were at that point. That part of the story is to come.

Reagan turns up the heat

If Soviet fears seem extreme, it was in a context where Ronald Reagan was amping up the Cold War with both actions and some of the most florid rhetoric of any president during that era. In a move reminiscent of these times, the administration pressed sanctions on a Soviet oil pipeline to Europe. The U.S. was also deploying electronic warfare measures that prospectively could interfere with Soviet command and control during a nuclear war, which scared the Soviets when uncovered by their spies. That added to fears that the U.S. lead in computer technology would give it an edge in fighting a war.

Reagan’s rhetoric signified a turn from détente already begun under the Carter Administration with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In his first press conference, he said “détente’s been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims . . . “  He “implied the impossibility of coexistence,” Jones writes. Later, speaking to the British Parliament in 1982, Reagan called for a “march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history  . . . “

No speech appears to have had greater impact on Soviet thinking, though, than one he made in March 1983.  The nuclear freeze movement had been mobilizing millions to push for a halt in new nuclear weapons. Reagan was looking for venues to counter that, and one offered itself in the form of the annual National Association of Evangelicals convention. The speech was not vetted by the State Department, which had previously toned down Reagan’s rhetoric. This one was full metal Ronald.

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In considering the nuclear freeze, Reagan told the group, the Cold War competitors could not be considered morally equal. One could not ignore “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire . . . and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” He ad libbed from the original text, calling the Soviet Union the “focus of evil in the modern world.”  Ambinder reports that Nancy Reagan later “complained to her husband he had gone too far. ‘They are an evil empire,’ Reagan replied. “It’s time to shut it down.”

Reagan’s policies and rhetoric “scared the wits out of our leadership,” Jones quotes Oleg Kalugin, head of U.S. KGB operations up until 1980.

Mixed signals

Even as Reagan was rhetorically shredding the Soviets, he was trying to open backdoor negotiations. Reagan’s diary entries, as well as his public words, confirm he had a genuine abhorrence of nuclear warfare. Reagan “was paralyzed by fear of a first strike,” Ambinder writes. He learned in a nuclear exercise in which he was involved, Ivy League 1982, “that if the Soviets wanted to decapitate the government, it could.”

Reagan believed he could only gain nuclear weapons reductions by building them up first, so suspended much diplomacy for the first two years of his administration. By 1983, he felt ready to engage. In January, he made a proposal to eliminate all intermediate range weapons, though the Soviets initially rejected it, considering they were also threatened by French and British nukes. Then on February 15 he had a White House meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.

“The president said he was mystified that the Soviets assumed that he was a ‘crazy warmonger.’ ‘But I don’t want war among us. That would bring countless disasters,’” Ambinder recounts. Dobrynin replied with similar sentiments, but called out Reagan’s military buildup, the greatest in peacetime U.S. history to that point, as “a real threat to our country’s security.” In his memoirs, Dobrynin confessed Soviet confusion at Reagan’s “vehement public attacks on the Soviet Union” while “secretly sending . . . signals seeking more normal relations.”

One signal came through clear to the Soviets, at least in their interpretation. Two weeks after the “evil empire” speech, Reagan proposed the “Star Wars” missile defense. In Reagan’s view, it was a step which could open the way to elimination of nuclear weapons. But to Soviet eyes, it looked like just one more step toward a first strike and “winnable” nuclear war.

“By appearing to suggest the U.S. could launch a first strike without any fear of retaliation, Reagan had created the Kremlin’s ultimate nightmare,” Downing writes. “Andropov was certain that this latest initiative brought nuclear war closer. And it was the United States that would start it.”

This first appeared on The Raven.

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