As the United States and Russia teeter toward a new Cold War, it is paramount to reflect on the lessons of the old one. The danger of accidental war in a world bristling with nuclear weapons was one of the factors that made the old Cold War so perilous. Over a series of cold November nights in 1983, that danger was higher than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis—and the Reagan administration didn’t have a clue.
The British historian and filmmaker Taylor Downing’s new book, 1983: The World at the Brink, is the most readable version to date of an episode that holds lessons for today. During the nadir of Soviet-American relations in the early 1980s, the Reagan administration’s tough foreign policy and massive military buildup convinced the Soviet leadership that Washington might be preparing a preemptive nuclear strike against Moscow. Throughout 1983, an extraordinary succession of events ratcheted up the tension. In early November, NATO began an annual war game, Able Archer, designed to simulate a nuclear attack on Warsaw Pact targets. The Soviet response was unprecedented. Nuclear-capable bombers and Soviet fighter groups in East Germany and Czechoslovakia were placed on unusual levels of alert. All non-reconnaissance flights over Warsaw Pact territory were grounded. Soviet nuclear submarines raced for the protective cover of the Arctic ice.
Western leaders were largely unaware of Moscow’s reaction at the time and divided over its meaning after the fact. The CIA insisted the Soviets had been merely “rattling the pots and pans” to galvanize public opinion against the planned deployment of American Pershing II intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe. Yet Margaret Thatcher’s government, which was receiving information from a KGB double agent at the Soviet Embassy in London, urgently warned Washington of the danger. Diplomatic eminence George Kennan described the mood in 1983 as having “the unfailing characteristics of a march toward war.” As former secretary of defense Robert Gates admitted, the world may have been on the brink of nuclear war and not even known it. After years of debate in the intelligence community, a highly classified review of all materials held by US intelligence agencies, commissioned in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, concluded the same thing.
Downing first came across a few fleeting references to Able Archer while working with the producers Jeremy Isaacs and Pat Mitchell on the acclaimed CNN Cold War TV series in 1998. Cold War went on to win a prestigious Peabody Award, but Downing couldn’t put the Able Archer crisis out of his mind. “The whole story stuck with me, partly because it just seemed extraordinary that the Soviets could have misinterpreted the situation and actually believed they would come under attack, and partly because no one in the West picked up on this,” he says. But without more evidence, Downing was in limbo.