The year 1983 was a supremely dangerous one. Many historians – indeed, probably most people with a knowledge of modern history – view the Cuban missile crisis, the very public US-Soviet confrontation of 1962, as the Cold War’s most fraught point. But recently released, long-restricted documents reveal that the crisis of November 1983 saw the Soviet Union come perilously close to pressing the nuclear button.
The 1970s had seen a period of détente between the superpowers, symbolised by the signing of the 1975 Helsinki Accords (intended to clarify sovereignty issues and improve relations between eastern Europe and the west) and the rendezvous of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft. After decades of mutual suspicion, it seemed that the two superpowers could, after all, enjoy a peaceful co-existence.
But during the early months of 1983, tensions again rose. President Ronald Reagan increased US defence spending at the highest peacetime rate since the Second World War. In March, he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and launched his new Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed the ‘Star Wars’ programme, which aimed to develop a satellite-linked system to defend the US against attack by ballistic missiles.
In Moscow, this was seen as directly aggressive, because it undermined the principle of mutually assured destruction if either side used nuclear weapons. The paranoid Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, felt threatened. He called the US president a “warmonger”, and put the KGB on worldwide alert to watch for signs of an imminent nuclear attack. Tensions were further inflamed when a Korean civil airliner that had veered off course was shot down over a sensitive Soviet military zone. Reagan called it an “atrocity” committed by a “terrorist state”. This was interpreted in the Kremlin as the build-up to a preemptive attack by the US, and Soviet media began to warn its people of an imminent nuclear strike.
Then, in early November, Nato started a war-game exercise, codenamed Able Archer 83, to rehearse procedures for the launch of nuclear weapons. Though the Soviets had been informed, it caused panic in Moscow, which believed the exercise was a case of maskirovka, or ‘disguise’ – a military deception. The Soviet leadership issued orders to ready the nuclear arsenal for war.
Towards the end of the 1970s, the US right wing began to feel they had been duped – that the Soviets were using the period of détente to build up their weaponry and stir up trouble in the developing world. Ronald Reagan exploited this theme in his campaign for the presidency in 1980 and, after his election, authorised a massive build-up of arms including new bombers, missiles and tanks, along with a dramatic increase in naval power. The Pentagon got almost everything it wanted. Reagan hoped ultimately to negotiate with the Soviets – but only from a position of strength.
Reagan was known for being deeply hostile to communism. As president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s and 1950s he had fought against what he saw as a communist conspiracy to infiltrate Hollywood. He viewed Marxism-Leninism as an ideology that put the state before the people, and which always used the end to justify any means. In his eyes, the end was nothing less than world domination, and he regularly quoted the words of Soviet leaders, from Lenin to Brezhnev, who had predicted the ultimate victory of world communism. In his first press conference as president, Reagan described Soviet leaders as criminals, liars and cheats, claiming that they hid their real ambitions behind a language of peace and reconciliation. He would not be fooled by them.
Everywhere he looked, Reagan saw the forces of communism advance in a plot orchestrated by the Kremlin. After the humiliation of US withdrawal from the Vietnam War in 1973, that country – along with neighbouring Cambodia and Laos – fell to the communists. In Africa, Cuban-backed guerrillas grew in numbers, and Angola and Mozambique fell to Soviet-backed regimes. Moscow further expanded its influence in Central America with the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1979. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan that year, Reagan came to believe that they also threatened Iran and the Middle East. He thought that unless America took a stand it risked losing the Cold War.
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Reagan knew that the economy of the United States was fundamentally strong. The 1980s witnessed the birth of a technological revolution that would transform society and create great wealth. This was what Reaganites believed free enterprise was about – enabling individuals to achieve their ambitions. In Reagan’s view, the role of government was to provide a lead but then to let the free market bring the best economic outcomes for the largest number of people. He was suspicious of big government, and believed that its role needed to be cut back, especially in areas such as health and welfare provision.
The struggle against communism
So Reagan set out his stall: he aimed to defend freedom and democracy, and to lead the free world in a struggle against communism. He saw the conflict between democracy and communism as the battle between right and wrong, good and evil. In March 1983, he described the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world”.
But neither Reagan nor his security and intelligence advisers had any idea of the impact of their words and deeds on Moscow. Though the CIA had accrued a mass of information about their rival’s weapons systems from spies and surveillance, they had no insight into the thinking of the Soviet leaders. They carried on their anti-communist crusade without any sense of the panic they were generating in the Kremlin.
Reagan believed, with the strength of a religious faith, that the Soviet system was deeply flawed – so many resources were allocated to military expenditure, while low priority was given to the manufacture of consumer goods or the welfare of the population. In the Soviet Union, as he saw it, people did not matter and human rights meant nothing, because all efforts were devoted to building the strength of the state.
As the US president said in a speech to the joint Houses of Parliament in London in June 1982, “the constant shrinkage of economic growth, combined with the growth of military production, is putting a heavy strain on the Soviet people”. Reagan was confident that the socialist system faced collapse, and that the “march of freedom and democracy” would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history”. His aim was to bring about this collapse as soon as possible.
In this tense, febrile atmosphere, Nato began the exercise codenamed Able Archer 83. In this communications war game, an imaginary conventional war against Warsaw Pact forces [the Soviet Union and seven satellite states] went wrong, leading Nato commanders to request permission to escalate the conflict and deploy nuclear weapons against a major Soviet Union target. In the war game, permission to use nuclear weapons came on 9 November. By that night the Soviets were convinced this was no exercise but the build-up to a real pre-emptive nuclear strike.
The situation looked very different from the Kremlin. In the early 1980s, the new US president was seen by the Soviets as aggressive and threatening, hurling out abuse in speech after speech. Soviet leaders were proud men: they presided over a vast country extending from the Arctic to the deserts of Central Asia, and from the border of Europe to the farthest points of east Asia. They controlled a huge nuclear arsenal of tens of thousands of warheads and a military of five million men and women.
To Moscow, the west represented an essentially individualistic, greedy, aggressive ethos. Marxism-Leninism, by contrast, was committed to collective action for the good of everyone. Education and healthcare were free. There was no unemployment, and supposedly no crime. Even if the reality was far from the ideal, they believed that it was a better and fairer system than that of the west.
Leonid Brezhnev had led the Soviet Union for nearly two decades. He wanted peace with the west, while maintaining Soviet authority over the regimes of Eastern Europe. He supported national liberation movements across the developing world, seeing an opportunity for the advance of socialism. He had witnessed the destruction of the Second World War, and was determined to avoid a nuclear confrontation. He believed that the American leadership shared his view that a nuclear exchange would be suicidal.
But, as the economies of the west grew dramatically, the Soviet Union under Brezhnev slid into a long period of stagnation. It relied upon central control, with a dependence on heavy, traditional industries. Consumer goods such as cars were rare. Soviet cities teemed with citizens on bicycles and buses. Queuing for even basic goods was endemic. The media were state controlled, and no public expression of discontent was allowed. The only thing that was abundant and cheap was vodka, and its use affected productivity, with millions of days lost each year through absenteeism. Yet despite the economic torpor, Brezhnev accepted stagnation as a form of stability.
When Brezhnev died in November 1982, the Politburo unanimously selected Yuri Andropov as leader. He was a hardliner who had led the Committee for State Security – the KGB – for 15 years and had the full support of the military. He would introduce economic reforms, but would only tinker at the edges.
Andropov believed that Reagan’s aggression was a prelude to a surprise attack. KGB agents started to find evidence that caused growing concern in Moscow. After a truck bomb in Beirut killed 241 marines and sailors, the US military put its bases worldwide onto a state of high alert. This was interpreted by the KGB as clear evidence an attack was being prepared. So when Nato began a war game that included practising the launch of nuclear weapons, Andropov was convinced that this was a deception. After all, the Soviet Union had itself developed plans to attack the west under the guise of military exercises.
By November 1983, Andropov was suffering from kidney disease. No doubt his physical illness did not help his mental condition. Always paranoid, he became convinced that a nuclear attack was imminent. He knew that if American missiles were launched on Moscow he’d have only minutes to respond.
Then, on 9 November, Nato began to use an unknown code – apparently to launch its missiles. The Kremlin was convinced this was no exercise but the real thing. The entire Soviet nuclear arsenal was put onto maximum combat alert. Huge SS-19 missiles were readied; submarines armed with nuclear weapons were deployed; mobile SS-20s were sent to launch positions hidden in the Russian countryside; aircraft in Poland and East Germany were put on strip alert with their engines on. The planet had come to the brink of World War Three.
But there was no Nato attack. Able Archer was a war game, and no more. The Soviets kept their nuclear forces on high alert for some weeks, but the moment of maximum danger had passed.
Aftermath of the incident
On 11 November, the Nato exercise ended – and Soviet fears abated. The nuclear arsenal was then stood down.
When Reagan heard of the scare, he was astonished that the Soviet leadership could believe he would actually launch a nuclear attack against them. He decided to adopt a more conciliatory tone, and in his re-election campaign in 1984 he softened his anti-communist rhetoric. Moreover, when Mikhail Gorbachev – a new, younger Soviet leader – was appointed, he decided he must meet him face to face to ensure that no misunderstanding on this scale could arise again. Subsequent US-Soviet summits in Geneva, Reykjavík, Washington and Moscow opened a dialogue that helped bring an end to longstanding tensions. The terrifying scare of November 1983 proved to be the last paroxysm of the Cold War.
Taylor Downing is a writer, historian and television producer. His latest book is 1983: The World at the Brink (Little, Brown, 2018)