Thirty years ago, the US and USSR reached the brink of nuclear war …
By Joe Bruns
"...It was November 1983 that Soviet bloc forces invaded West Germany, setting off a much feared ground war with NATO. Earlier that year, as the Iran-Iraq war continued, the USSR increased its political and military assistance to Iran, Syria and South Yemen. The US responded by sending military advisors and naval forces to the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, economic and political crisis was beginning to tear Yugoslavia apart, with the government increasingly looking to the West for military and economic assistance. Kosovo was in open revolt, encouraged by Albania. In Finland, pro-Soviet elements were threatening to topple the elected government. By mid-September, both sides were at elevated stages of alert, and were beginning to mobilize forces and pre-position supplies. In October, the Soviet bloc increased aircraft presence and readiness, particularly around Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
On October 31, Soviet forces entered Yugoslavia and then Finland. On November 4, 1983 massive air and naval attacks were staged against NATO bases. Soviet tanks rolled into Norway, West Germany and Greece. The outnumbered NATO forces provided stiff resistance, but Soviet use of chemical weapons took a toll, and the Western lines began to crumble.
It was soon apparent to NATO commanders that conventional forces would not be sufficient to stop the Soviet juggernaut. On November 8 the top NATO commander, SACEUR, requested from the top political leadership authority to use tactical nuclear weapons. The first use of those weapons occurred on November 9, followed by a second and larger launch on November 11.”
Today this sounds like a Cold War movie plot or a paperback best-seller.
In fact it was an actual NATO war exercise called Able Archer 83 based on a plausible scenario and designed to test the command and control transition from conventional to tactical and then strategic nuclear weapons.
To the Soviet Union, though, already at a heightened state of alert and viewing the activities through the cataract of its intelligence network, it had all the markings of a cover for an actual pre-emptive nuclear strike designed to decapitate the political and military leadership of the USSR.
Using a war exercise as cover for an actual attack was a ploy that the Soviets had feared and anticipated. The result was the closest approach to a full-scale nuclear war, at least since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As we now so loosely apply the term “nuclear option’ to changes in Senate rules, it is sobering to reflect on just how close we came to an actual thermo-nuclear holocaust as a result of military provocations, harsh political rhetoric, calculated foreign policy, faulty intelligence and misreading of intentions in the early 1980s. Much of this is just now coming into full light thanks to the work of Nathan Jones and the National Security Archive.
President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev
Détente Before the Storm
The 1970s saw an easing of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, a period of détente, as it was called. In 1972, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) led to President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev signing an Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and an interim agreement limiting the number and types of ICBMs. This was followed, in June 1979, with the SALT II treaty, placing a variety of caps and restrictions on each side’s strategic nuclear forces. The US Senate however never ratified the treaty, as events soon intervened.
On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Just the month before, revolutionary Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking US diplomats hostage in a humiliating blow to US prestige. The world was quickly changing. Fearing that the USSR would next move into the new vacuum created in the Middle East, President Carter moved to draw a red line, with his statement of The Carter Doctrine during his State of the Union Address in January 1980. Carter stated in very clear terms that the Persian Gulf was an area of American vital interest, and that any move on the part of the Soviets to expand into the Gulf would be resisted “by any means necessary, including military force.” The Carter Administration imposed a trade embargo on the Soviet Union, withdrew from participation in the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow, and began assisting the Afghan resistance. The spirit of détente was just a memory.
Moderation in the Protection of Liberty is no Virtue
Ronald Reagan Vs. The Evil Empire
The first years of the Reagan presidency were ones of escalating tension. The Reagan Administration brought with them a strong belief in American Exceptionalism, metaphorically a shining city upon a hill, separate from and superior to other nations. Where détente implied give-and-take between countries each with valid national interests, the Reagan view was that moral and historical forces converged in the concept of American liberty. There was no moral equivalence, and there would be no compromise of principles. It was not a struggle between competing political philosophies, but rather a struggle between good and evil. In the words of Reagan’s political godfather Barry Goldwater, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
Indeed, President Reagan and the conservatives he brought into government with him left no ambiguity about their hostility toward the USSR and its communist allies. The Reagan Doctrine was born. Without irony, the Reagan Doctrine seemed to be the policy implementation of the inaugural statement by John F. Kennedy to “…pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The Soviet bloc was the “Evil Empire,” and the Administration promised to use all the tools at their disposal to consign them to “the ash heap of history.”
Under the Reagan Doctrine, containment would be replaced with confrontation.
President Ronald Reagan – Address to the British Parliament
The period 1981-1983 was one of increased covert action, expanded public diplomacy, psychological operations and military assistance all coordinated in an effort to roll back Communism and confront its proponents. Rhetoric was employed to burnish Reagan’s image as an aggressive, perhaps even unpredictable, cold warrior. Operations included near and actual penetrations of Soviet territory by American aircraft and submarines, as well as feints of attacks to keep the Soviets on edge and guessing. American fighters would provocatively lock their fire control radar on Soviet bloc planes.
In March of 1983 the President announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or Star Wars, upsetting the longstanding balance of nuclear power and potentially abrogating the ABM Treaty. Cold War stability had been maintained between east and west because of a rough parity among nuclear offensive capability, or mutually assured destruction (MAD). The ABM Treaty was intended to prevent one side from gaining an advantage by creating a defensive shield. SDI did just that. Furthermore, it would begin the militarization of space, where the West had enormous technological advantage. Leave aside whether the Americans could actually make it reliably work, the Soviet Union could not ignore it. Neither, though, could they afford to enter this new area of competition with the West, lacking both technological and economic resources. It was a dangerous upsetting of the balance of power, and led Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov to conclude that the United States thought it could ‘win’ a nuclear war.
American Supplied Stinger Missiles Proved Particularly Effective
American pressure was brought to bear as the Reagan Administration announced plans to double the size of the Navy, deploy intermediate-range Pershing II missiles in Europe, to develop nuclear-capable cruise missiles, and to fully modernize American military assets. They also increased support of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and confronted communist regimes in Latin America and Africa. Bleeding resources in Afghanistan, the Soviets could not hope to keep pace.
Reagan also touched a particularly raw nerve by highlighting Soviet human rights abuses and taking up the cause of internal Soviet dissidents. The Reagan Administration undertook a $1 Billion expansion of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty allowing the United States to criticize Soviet actions and broadcast dissident voices back into Russia and Eastern Europe. President Reagan proclaimed May 21, 1983 National Andrei Sakharov Day in honor of the dissident Russian physicist, citing “continuous harassment and mistreatment by Soviet Authorities.” The cause of Soviet Jewry and the plight of Natan Sharansky played prominently in American public diplomacy.
President Reagan’s counterpart in the Soviet Union in the crucial year of 1983 was General Secretary Yuri Andropov. Born in 1914, Andropov was Ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 uprising, and was a strong proponent of the brutal suppression of that revolt. Later, as Chairman of the KGB, he was instrumental in putting down “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia. He took a hard line against dissenters, and established ‘psychiatric hospitals’ to deal with the most troublesome of them. Andropov was the personification of Reagan’s evil empire.
The Cold War Heats Up
On April 4, 1983, aircraft from two US Aircraft Carriers flew simulated bombing runs over Zeleny, a small Soviet island in the Pacific. Reacting to this, Andropov ordered heightened alert, and said any aircraft violating Soviet air space was to be shot down.
On September 1, the Soviet Union did detect an encroachment of its airspace and shot down Korean Airlines flight 007, killing all 269 passengers and crew on board. The Soviets insisted that the plane had a military mission and had intentionally penetrated Soviet airspace. While the Western response was rapid in condemning this “brutal and barbarous act,” the consensus view of American intelligence analysts, corroborated later by Soviet documents declassified after the Cold War, is that the USSR did not realize it was a civilian airliner at the time. Their belief was that it was an intelligence probe to test Soviet air defenses perhaps in preparation for a war strike.
In May 1981 the Soviets initiated Operation Ryan (sometimes RYaN) an acronym for ‘nuclear war launch.’ RYAN had the express purpose of focusing Soviet intelligence efforts on detecting US plans for a pre-emptive nuclear attack. In February 1983, an urgent cable was sent to KGB and GRU stations stating that these efforts had ‘acquired an especial degree of urgency,” and was of “grave importance.” The Soviet leadership had convinced itself that the United States was preparing to launch a nuclear attack. Stations were instructed to assign the highest priority to gathering intelligence on US/NATO political and strategic decisions, early warning of any indicators of a nuclear attack and information on new weapon systems that might be used in a surprise nuclear attack.
In a 1990 interview, Marshall Sergei Akhromeyev said, “I believed [at the time] the United States [was prepared to] start a war against the Soviet Union and their aim is world supremacy.” Earlier in 1983, Soviet General Secretary Andropov warned U.S Envoy Averell Harrimanin a prepared statement that he was “alarmed” with the state of relations between the two countries, and that unless reasonable measures were taken, they “would become still worse.” Andropov went on to say that he was particularly concerned that the Reagan Administration “may be moving toward a dangerous red line, and that war between the two countries could start through “mis-calculation.”
The implication of Operation Ryan was clear: if Soviet intelligence developed convincing evidence that the West was preparing for a strike, the Soviet Union would itself launch its nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, trying to gather such intelligence was the KGB and GRU’s highest priority. If the American objective was to create paranoia within the Politburo, it had succeeded.
Petrov Ignored the Warning, preventing Nuclear War
A Very Close Call
On September 26, 1983 a Soviet satellite in orbit over the United States flashed a warning that went off inside a secret bunker outside of Moscow that the United States had launched an ICBM. Moments later, a second alarm went off. Computers inside the bunker indicated that five American ICBMs had been launched, presumably aimed at the Soviet Union. Forty-four year old Lt Col Stanislav Petrov was on duty, and it was just past midnight. Under Soviet Cold War doctrine, the USSR response to an American launch was an immediate massive retaliatory strike, “launch on warning.” Many Russians still remembered their failure to heed early warnings of Hitler’s invasion of Russia in World War II, Operation Barbarossa, and its tragic consequences. The Soviet Army was determined that would not happen again.
Fortunately for the world, Lt Col Petrov was on duty that night. Petrov knew the computer system well, and he knew that it had, in the past, signaled false alarms.
Petrov also knew from his military training that a small launch of as few as five missiles was not likely. Such an attack would leave the opponent’s retaliatory weapons intact, allowing a massive reprisal. His instinct told him this was a false alarm, and he notified his superiors up the chain of command that it was a computer error. In fact it turned out that Petrov was wrong; it was not a computer error, but actually an error onboard the satellite.
Nevertheless, the world was perhaps saved from a nuclear war through the judgment of a single man.
Able Archer 83
Into this highly volatile geopolitical milieu came sensitive, high-level, but essentially routine NATO war exercise with an added element. Defense planners had long assumed that a likely scenario for the launch of World War III would be a multi-pronged land-based conventional attack on Europe led by massed Soviet armor and infantry. The Soviet bloc held considerable advantage in land based assets, and it was a given that NATO would have to give ground in the face of such an attack. A leveling factor was that NATO commanders had available tactical nuclear weapons that could be used to halt, or at least slow, the Soviet attack until additional American troops could deploy. But use of those weapons was under political control, not military. Able Archer 83 was a war game designed to test the decision and command process as NATO forces were forced to escalate from conventional to nuclear defensive weaponry.
In the lead-up to Able Archer 83, the Soviets had observed an unannounced 16,000 troop airlift to Europe carried out in radio silence. This troop movement was a part of another, and larger, exercise, Autumn Forge 83. Post-Cold War interviews show that the Soviet leadership failed to distinguish between the two exercises, but considered them all part of a single NATO escalation of just the type they assumed would be a precursor to war.
Able Archer 83 only lasted five days. It did not itself involve any troop movements or exercises, but was rather designed as a “command exercise,” including decision makers at the very top of the political leadership of NATO countries, although President Reagan himself did not participate. Because of the nature of the exercise, encrypted communication between NATO commanders and capitals gradually built up during the early phases as the scenario progressed from Soviet threat to limited invasion to multi-front invasion of Western Europe and Greece. True to the exercise the simulation took NATO forces through the graded phases of alert from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1 the highest state of readiness.
From the Soviet perspective, they began from a very high state of anxiety. They saw the clandestine troop movement to Europe, combined with deployments of NATO allies as part of Autumn Forge, followed by the rapid increase of highly encrypted traffic throughout NATO command and control channels. Meanwhile, the KGB was reporting, sometimes incorrectly, that Western troops had been put on a higher state of alert. It all fit into a pattern for them, and it led them to conclude that the West was preparing to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.
The Soviet option was clear: it could not survive a first strike; it would have to launch its weapons first. And they prepared to do so.
Nuclear bombs were armed and loaded on aircraft poised on runways in East Germany and Poland. It is believed by some analysts that Soviet ICBMs were keyed for launch. The game was about to have tragic consequences.
And then it ended…The Aftermath
The NATO war gamers, totally unaware that their exercise was being taken literally, began to close down. Signal traffic dropped to normal levels. Importantly, President Reagan was seen making appearances at pre-announced events, rather than withdrawing to an ‘undisclosed location.’ One side knowingly and the other side unconsciously drew back from the brink.
Soon NATO began to receive its own intelligence reports of a rapid escalation of Soviet military activity, like an echo. It took a little while for the intelligence analysts to begin to link the Soviet actions with NATO’s. First, British intelligence received an accounting from a KGB double agent, Oleg Gordievsky, which set off more analysis. At first the American CIA dismissed the connection, but over time the either realized or simply acknowledged what had almost happened.
President Reagan meets KGB Agent Oleg Gordievsky, who was informing the British
For his part, President Reagan was stunned. He could not believe that the Soviets thought that the United States might unilaterally set off a nuclear war. Reagan had seen the American movie “The Day After” in 1983, and had been briefed by his national security advisors on the potential effect of a nuclear war. He was reportedly shaken now by the thought that miscalculation on his part could lead to the most hideous consequences. None other than ‘the iron lady’ Margaret Thatcher also weighed in, urging her friend Reagan to be more moderate in tone and in action.
President Reagan continued to press the Soviet Union by giving military support to the opposition in Afghanistan. He continued to confront Communist expansion, particularly in Latin America and Africa. He continued to call them out on the matter of human rights. His massive expenditures on American military continued. But his tone become more modulated, and actions that could lead to direct confrontation with the Soviet Union were reduced. In January 1984, President gave a speech on US – Soviet relations. While the speech contained many of the usual talking points, Reagan ended it with a paragraph in which he spoke about a fictional Russian couple, Ivan and Anya meeting American couple Jim and Sally, sharing common, ordinary interests, and above all wanting to live in a world without the threat of nuclear war. The speech was a a short time, but a far cry from the days of ‘the evil empire.’ By humanizing the risk of nuclear war, Reagan had subtly changed the tone of the debate.
Early the following year General Secretary Andropov died, and was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, who was in poor health himself., and was succeeded in March 1985 by Mikhail Gorbachev, ushering in a new era and, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Joe Bruns worked for USIA and VOA from 1983 - 1997