1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink

  • By Taylor Downing
  • Da Capo Press
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Larry Matthews
  • May 22, 2018

A comprehensive (and terrifying) account of just how close we came...

The first thermonuclear device detonated by the United States in 1952 on a tiny Pacific island called Eniwetok produced a fireball more than three miles wide, larger than downtown Washington, DC, and three times bigger than Central Park. It sent intense heat more than 15 miles and was a thousand times more powerful than the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in the closing days of World War II.

By 1983, the United States and the Soviet Union possessed more than 18,000 nuclear warheads. People lived in a world that was constantly 30 minutes away from conflagration on a global scale.

Taylor Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink is a terrific book that should terrify anyone who reads it. It is a must-read for students of the Cold War and for anyone who thinks nuclear brinkmanship is a productive way to conduct foreign policy. The book is a chronicle of a time when the United States and the Soviet Union came close to destroying civilization in a confrontation of thermonuclear insanity.

For readers who lived through the Cold War days, the book recalls the mistrust that defined the relationship between the world’s two superpowers, armed as they were with thousands of nuclear warheads programmed to destroy each other. Each side was convinced that the other was plotting to destroy it. Miscalculations were inevitable.

One such miscalculation occurred in November 1983, when the Soviet Union’s leadership, under the ailing former KGB head Yuri Andropov, took every step but the final one to launch an all-out attack on the United States. Due to an error, the Soviets were convinced that the United States was preparing to attack first. Downing writes:

“The Soviet early warning system had malfunctioned by interpreting reflections of the sun on clouds in the Midwest of the United States as a sign that missiles had been launched…The entire Soviet nuclear launch system was resting on a knife edge.”

The Soviets, always on alert for evidence of a United States’ plan to attack, ordered KGB agents around the world to look for signs that the U.S. was preparing for war. Agents were given a checklist — including such things as alerted military bases, unusual activity at blood banks, high-level American officials leaving DC, and diplomatic officials working late — to watch for. Many KGB agents were skeptical, but they followed orders and sent reports to Moscow.

Information streamed into the Kremlin and Soviet leadership, always paranoid, found evidence wherever they looked. Then, in November 1983, the situation worsened. NATO created an exercise named Able Archer 83 to mimic what NATO believed a Soviet attack on Western Europe would look like. No troops were involved; it was merely a communications exercise — but, of course, the Soviets did not know this.

The program was run in a bunker near the NATO headquarters in Belgium. Its simulation examined a situation in which Soviets, using their overwhelming numbers of troops, tanks, and artillery, swept into Germany and Greece. According to the script, NATO was losing badly and had to resort to nuclear weapons.

The Soviets monitored these communications as part of their Western surveillance and believed that their worst fears were being realized. Adding to their anxiety was a planned trip to Japan by President Ronald Reagan, who left Washington at a critical point in Able Archer 83. The Soviets believed that the president leaving the capital foreshadowed an imminent attack. The Soviet nuclear arsenal was placed on full alert; all that was needed was the authority to launch.

Writes the author, “Because there had been almost no dialogue between American and Soviet officials since the [Soviet] invasion of Afghanistan, there were no contacts through which either side could understand how the other was thinking. It was to be a near fatal mistake.”

The world was on the brink, as close to unimaginable destruction as it had been during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The United States was unaware of any of this, and thankfully Able Archer 83 ended before the Soviets made the fatal decision to launch.

The massive intelligence failure on both sides shook each country’s leadership, however. Reagan thought the idea that the United States would attack the Soviet Union was absurd. In his diary, he wrote, “What the h—l have they got that anyone would want?”

Soon after this near-crisis, Andropov died, and his successor’s tenure was short-lived. Thereafter, the Communist Party chose a younger man, Mikhail Gorbachev, to lead the country. Gorbachev would not only agree to a major nuclear-arms reduction but would go on to bring down the curtain on the Soviet Union itself, freeing Eastern Europe, breaking the Communist Party’s rule over Russia, and, with Reagan, ending the Cold War.

This is not a book for readers with a casual interest in the Cold War. Downing squeezes a wealth of details into a short period of time and provides background into once-powerful men who have passed into history, many without so much as a mention in today’s world.

Younger readers may find it tedious in spots and wonder how it could be relevant to the world we know today. The answer? It reminds us that those who hold our lives in their hands are not as wise as we wish they were.

Larry Matthews is the author of Take a Rifle from a Dead Man.

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