1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink
The world has more than once been lucky to escape an all-out nuclear war, said The Economist. On Nov. 9, 1983—two decades after the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis—the U.S. and the Soviet Union once again blundered to the brink of mutual destruction when the Soviets misinterpreted a NATO military exercise as a preparation for imminent nuclear attack. As Taylor Downing’s “snappily told” account of the 1983 incident lays bare, the second close call was especially dangerous because the U.S. had no idea that the Soviets had been frightened into readying war planes for takeoff. In 1962, by contrast, “at least both sides knew the world was on the brink of catastrophe.”
Downing’s closely reported book “reads like a thriller,” said Terry Hartle in CSMonitor.com. Soviet leaders were paranoid that U.S. President Ronald Reagan aimed to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and in truth, Reagan had given them plenty to worry about. After assuming office in 1981, he championed a nuclear arms buildup while sparring verbally with Moscow. After several scares caused by U.S. Navy flight maneuvers, the Soviet military shot down a Korean passenger airliner in September 1983 and claimed it had been mistaken for a spy plane. But the Soviets knew the West was still outraged when in early November NATO launched Able Archer 83, the most realistic war game ever seen. Unsurprisingly, Soviet observers concluded that doomsday had arrived.
“On the face of it, Downing’s book has a happy ending,” said Dominic Sandbrook in The Times (U.K.). Able Archer concluded on Nov. 11 without triggering a Soviet strike, and when Reagan discovered how close the exercise had come to initiating nuclear war, he sought stronger diplomatic ties and pursued disarmament. “Yet there is a chilling lesson here, too.” In 1983, stupidity and miscommunication nearly caused an Armageddon scenario, and the world relied on the decisions of just a handful of people, including Reagan, to avert catastrophe. Might we not be so lucky the next time? ■