When people recall the moment in history when the world was closest to nuclear destruction, most recollect the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The disturbing conclusion of several Cold War historians is that leading up to the autumn of 1983, the superpowers once again met, this time obliviously, at the brink of nuclear war.
The series of events, climaxing in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) military exercise, Able Archer-83, created a precarious international environment, exacerbating superpower tensions to breaking point. The final years of the Carter administration and the election of Reagan in 1981 sparked a reversal in US rhetorical and political stance towards the USSR, marked the end of a period of détente, engendering the ‘second Cold War’. Within this context of failing relations; the ‘Euromissile’ crisis increased Soviet fears of an aggressive ‘decapitation strike’ against them; Operation RYAN, an intelligence operation to determine whether the US was preparing for a nuclear attack, was launched in May 1981; a deteriorating economy, technological lag, and paranoid elites, heightened their sense of vulnerability against a perceived US aggressor; events and military campaigns in the third world, primarily Afghanistan, Lebanon and Grenada tested superpower tensions across the globe; the US pursued a Psychological warfare Operations (PSYOP) campaign against the Soviets; on March 23rd, 1983, Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – an extraordinary attempt to shield America from nuclear attack; Korean Airlines flight-007 was shot down by Soviet fighter aircraft on September 1st, 1983; weeks later on September 26th, a false alarm brought the USSR dangerously close to retaliating to a perceived US nuclear attack; finally, Able Archer-83 was perceived to be a facade behind which NATO would launch a surprise nuclear attack against the USSR.
Limited declassified documents, primarily from US Intelligence and Security archives, present an environment far from détente, but where pre-emptive nuclear attack was extremely unlikely. From the documents analysed, it is clear the US believed that actions such as SDI and Pershing-II missile deployment in West Europe were defensive actions, and could only be perceived as such. It was believed that reactions to such actions would be conventional, including direct (arms talks) and indirect (inciting anti-nuclear sentiment in grass-roots Western Europe) political response, and military expansion – pre-emptive attack was highly unlikely as it would ignite nuclear war. The US underestimated that SDI could be perceived as a techno-military threat to the USSR. They failed to appreciate Soviet response of feeling cornered, exacerbated by the balance of power rapidly shifting against them. Ultimately, the US did not believe the USSR perceived a ‘genuine danger’ of nuclear confrontation with the US. They believed the war scare was exaggerated by the Soviet leadership to undermine the US agenda and legitimise spending increases and reductions in living standards. The US expected a pragmatic Soviet response, based on long-term reasoning (albeit grounded in a fundamentally suspicious ideology and leadership) – thus not realistically considering nuclear action. While Ermath admits that the US did not fully understand USSR perceptions, he reiterates that they ‘got it right: The US did not intend to attack Moscow, and Moscow perceived no such intention.’
The account of double-agent Oleg Gordievsky and new evidence from East German Intelligence reports gives us a more nuanced and holistic picture of Soviet perceptions during the crisis: Western armament policies since the late Carter administration and, critically, during Reagan’s, genuinely perplexed Soviet leaders, leading them to conclude the US intended to blackmail them or defeat them in a nuclear war. Ustinov remarked: ‘The American Pershing… deployment in Europe [is] part of this strategy to… conduct a nuclear first strike.’ Indeed, during Able Archer 83 the USSR readied nuclear-capable aircraft in Poland and East-Germany; an ICBM silo commander recounts an order to “immediately go to raised combat alert.” Gordievsky noted the potentially “lethal combination of Reaganite rhetoric and Soviet paranoia” that made nuclear conflict a genuine fear of Soviet leadership. East-German spymaster Wolf recounts Andropov describing a gloomy scenario in which “a nuclear war might be a real threat.”
The implications of the threat, genuine or not, are critical. First, intelligence and misperception were key ingredients of the crisis. Lack of communication between the superpowers meant both parties relied heavily on covert intelligence. Ironically, intelligence acted both as a nuclear-safeguard by producing pseudo-transparency between the superpowers, and fuelled false conceptions of the enemy thus increasing tensions. Although most agents did not believe an attack was imminent, they were ordered to report raw observations of events, not estimations of what their observations meant. This ‘fed the fear of US nuclear aggression and made an attack seem likely.’ Misinterpretation created misperceptions of US intentions, and tensions escalated. This author found fascinating the very hypothetical nature of it juxtaposed with the potential disaster, incited by paranoia and misinterpretations from Soviet leadership.
Second, the Cold War is traditionally seen as an era of nuclear deterrence. However, pre-emptive wars do happen. 1983 exemplified the fact that the Cold War could become “thoroughly white hot”, and the nuclear spectre could be raised, instilling fear that apocalypse may happen by design, accident or miscalculation.
Third, the crisis arguably marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War, as it dawned on the Reagan administration that defensive actions had been misunderstood by the Soviets, had stoked Soviet fears, and consequentially had raised not reduced the possibility of nuclear holocaust. Dubbed the “Reagan reversal”, ‘[b]y highlighting Soviet fears of the United States, intelligence stemming from Able Archer 83… catalyzed a policy shift from hostile confrontation toward cautious cooperation.’
Able Archer 83 provides a stark example of how the lack of mutual understanding can lead to misinterpretations and force irrational decisions perceived as rational by the decision-makers. The case ‘demonstrates how worldviews, pre-existing beliefs, and expectations can structure the process of information-gathering and decision-making.’ The ironic climax of this potent concoction of doubt and fear was not nuclear holocaust, but the beginning of an era of rapprochement that saw the Cold War end without a nuclear exchange.
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