Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Cold War is well aware of the Cuban missile crisis and the close brush with nuclear war that it created. But even those with detailed knowledge of US-Soviet relations may be unaware of another, equally dangerous event that could easily have led to a nuclear exchange.
The second incident, known as “Able Archer 83," was sparked by a routine NATO military exercise. But, as writer Taylor Downing documents in 1983: Reagan, Andropov and a World on the Brink, a carefully-researched and absorbing book, it occurred when mistrust and suspicion between the superpowers was sky-high. Indeed, relations were so tense that Soviet political and military leadership believed the exercise was a ruse to enable NATO to launch a pre-emptive strike. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies had no idea that the Soviets were spooked.
The Soviet Union always had a predilection for paranoia and by the 1980s, it was fully operational. In 1981, Leonid Brezhnev warned senior Soviet leaders that he expected the United States to launch a preemptive nuclear attack against the USSR. In response, the KGB and the Soviet military launched a massive intelligence-gathering operation to confirm their suspicions. In the pattern of bureaucracies everywhere, information duly went up the chain of command to confirm the suspicions of political leaders, even if the agents in the field really did not believe it.
In truth, the United States gave Soviet agents plenty to work with. Ronald Reagan’s election in November 1980 led to the largest peacetime military expansion in American history. President Reagan’s combative rhetoric was such a departure from the diplomatic norms that it rattled Soviet leaders. Moreover, they assumed his proposal to build an electronic shield against nuclear attack, known as “Star Wars," was simply another very frightening offensive weapon.
Starting in February 1981, the US launched a series of “psychological operations” (called PSYOP) to test Soviet vulnerabilities and simulate possible US strategies in the event of a military conflict. As part of that, the US Navy ran exercises to demonstrate how close US warships could get to Soviet bases and American bombers flew directly toward Soviet airspace before veering away at the last minute. In April 1983, several Navy aircraft suddenly flew over the Kurile Islands, widely regarded as Soviet airspace, and stunned the USSR’s political leadership.
Five months later, another aircraft accidentally flew into Soviet airspace and was shot down. Sadly, the plane was Korean Airlines Flight 007 and 269 people perished. At first, the Soviets denied they had destroyed the aircraft but soon changed their story and claimed that the plane had been on a spy mission. The world was outraged and international tensions ratcheted upward. Deputy CIA Director Robert Gates concluded that the relationship between the two superpowers was “pervasively bleak.”
It was at this point that the US and its NATO allies launched Able Archer 83. Taylor describes this as “a military planning exercise intended to simulate a request by NATO commanders to deploy nuclear weapons as the final result in a full-scale war with the Soviet Union.” In short, it was a dress rehearsal for the release of NATO’s nuclear weapons. It was the most realistic war game ever staged and even included a step that moved the US military to DEFCON 1, the highest level of military readiness.
The Soviets concluded that this was not an exercise but the real thing and put their own military on the highest readiness level. So fully armed fighter planes sat continuously idling on runways waiting for a signal to take off.
Meanwhile, in Washington, nothing seemed amiss. Only much later did the United States realize that Soviet leaders had been petrified with fear. A top-secret US report concluded, “We may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”
The narrow escape alarmed President Reagan and he began to think again about the possibility of a world free of nuclear weapons. This set the scene for significant changes in the Cold War when Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in the Soviet Union in March 1985. Over the next several years, Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated a series of reductions in nuclear weapons that fundamentally changed the international order for the first time since the end of the Second World War.
This is a complicated, multifaceted story and Downing deftly provides a complete and gripping account. He weaves together information from a wide array of sources and benefits from having access to new documents released in response to Freedom of Information requests. It reads like a thriller, even though the reader knows how it will turn out.
The incident is important and deserves to be more widely known. What is not clear is the extent to which it was decisive in moving America’s political leadership to reassess its relationship with the Soviet Union. Downing clearly believes the event was decisive and it is clear that President Reagan was deeply troubled by the close call.
However, other historians give the event less attention. Odd Arne Westad’s magisterial “The Cold War: a World History,” for example, barely mentions Able Archer 83. Indeed, he suggests the Soviets had enough information about the exercise that their response was clearly an overreaction.
Even so, Downing demonstrates that Able Archer 83 could easily and unexpectedly have taken a very bad turn. Ultimately, this book is a clear and compelling reminder of how much words and actions matter in international relations. Political and military leaders send signals through a large number of channels and other nations will react and respond to them. If the signals are complex, change quickly, and are delivered in bellicose language, the chances for misunderstandings increase exponentially. And miscalculations in international relations can have exceptionally dire consequences. It is a lesson we would do well to remember.