For years now I’ve been telling my students that the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to using nuclear weapons against each other was during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But a new book by British television-producer-cum-historian Taylor Downing has convinced me that perhaps the closest the world came to an exchange of nuclear weapons was on November 9th, 1983. Does that date not ring any special bells for you? That’s precisely what makes Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink such a frightening and unsettling read.
Downing begins by ably chronicling how US-Soviet relations reached a nadir during the first three years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency (1981-1983). On the American side, the Reagan administration kept upping the Cold War ante: giving harsh speeches denouncing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”; pursuing new weapons systems that threatened to completely upend the existing strategic balance of power; and evincing little interest in conducting normal diplomatic relations with the USSR. On the Soviet side, its top leadership was “geriatric,” sick, and increasingly paranoid. Soviet premiere Yuri Andropov spent most of his time in office in a hospital bed hooked up to a dialysis machine in a highly guarded military hospital.
The Kremlin’s mistrust of the West was fed by a KGB intelligence network that had strong incentives to tell its masters what they wanted to hear, as opposed to what the KGB actually believed to be true. Beginning in 1981, the Soviets launched “Operation RYaN,” a worldwide spying program designed to spot any clues that the US and its NATO allies were preparing for a surprise attack against the Eastern Bloc. While this option was never seriously considered by the Reagan administration, Downing shows how over the course of 1983 the Soviet leadership interpreted many US actions as preparations for war. For example, following the October 23rd terrorist attack on the US Marines barracks in Beirut, all US military facilities around the world went on a heightened state of alert as a precaution. But the Soviets ascribed this worldwide increase in US military readiness not to the terrorist bombing, but instead to preparations for a surprise attack. Similarly, another key indicator that the KGB tracked was the amount of communications traffic between Washington and London, on the grounds that if NATO were gearing up for war there would be an increase in contact between the US and its most important ally. At the end of October, communications traffic between Washington and London spiked off the charts… but Soviet analysts did not connect this uptick to the fact that the US had just suddenly invaded the former British colony of Grenada, much to the consternation and vociferous protests of Margaret Thatcher and her government.
Matters came to a head during early November, as NATO began its annual Able Archer military exercises from its headquarters in Brussels. The Soviet leadership became genuinely convinced that that year’s exercise—Able Archer 83—was merely a ploy, cover for the surprise all-out nuclear assault that the West had been organizing. As the West’s practice war games reached their apex, the Soviets went to their highest level of military preparedness: the top leadership descended into bunkers deep underground; fighter jets were pre-positioned on tarmacs with their engines left running, capable of being airborne within 3 minutes; the Soviet Navy left port and took up its battle stations; and mobile ballistic missile launchers were instructed to leave their bases, disperse across the Russian countryside, and stand by for orders to launch their deadly payloads.
In the end, the long night of November 9th, 1983 passed without any nuclear missiles being launched. Able Archer 83 quietly concluded without incident two days later, and slowly the Soviets relaxed their guard. But for Downing the kicker is that the West had absolutely no idea at the time of how afraid the Soviets were. What was just another pretty routine week in Brussels and Washington had been experienced as near-existential terror in Moscow, but no one in either the CIA or the Pentagon realized it.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the first reports began to circulate in American intelligence circles of how close the November 1983 war-scare had come to becoming a reality, and not until 1996 that the CIA commissioned an internal review of the episode. Nowadays senior American intelligence official like Robert Gates agree that the inability of the CIA to pick up on the signs of extreme panic that had gripped the Soviet leadership in 1983 was an immense intelligence failure: “We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.”
All of this of course makes for very timely reading today, as a new American administration casually insults foreign countries, refuses to engage in the day-to-day work of diplomacy, plays politics with the findings of the intelligence community, and engages in needless bellicosity. But while Downing nods in this direction at the very end of his book, the main strength of his work lies in rendering this era of the Cold War in vivid, engaging prose combined with excellent historical insights. Downing doesn’t write like an academic at all, and I very much mean that as a compliment. He’s particularly adept at putting disparate historical events all into the same narrative; he shows how different episodes like the downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 or Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit of London in December 1984 all interconnect. All in all, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink is an excellent piece of historical writing perfect for students and the general public; it’s well worth your time if you’re interested in either the Cold War, nuclear weapons, or espionage.