The Cold War had its fair share of tense moments – think of the Berlin Blockade in 1948 or the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962… and then there was the fall of 1983. None of the events of fall 1983 were as iconic by themselves, but together they formed an impressive string which made the world anxious if the Cold War was going to turn hot more than once. We’ll have a look at the new American policy after the fall of détente and then go right into the grim fall of 1983 – all of which through the lens of Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games).
After Détente: The New Political Landscape
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, American and Soviet leaders realized that a new culture of cooperation between the superpowers was necessary to prevent nuclear war. “Détente” became the new paradigm of superpower relations – exemplified by regular dialogue between American and Soviet leaders and a slowing of the nuclear arms race. However, the two superpowers understood détente rather differently – even when their leaders got along well, like the two chief architects of détente, US president Richard Nixon and Soviet general secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Nixon saw détente as a tactical instrument to rid the United States of their tensions with the Soviets when America had enough other things to worry about, chiefly the war in Vietnam. The Soviets, on the other hand, saw the détente treaties as proof that they were accepted as an equal by the United States now and – helped by their savings due to the slowing of the arms race – could therefore act like the United States, namely project their power more assertively in the Third World. So, the Americans expected détente to keep the Soviets quiet, the Soviets however saw themselves empowered by détente. From the mid-1970s on, those two ideas began to clash openly. The end of the Vietnam war had removed the original American incentive for détente and Soviet involvement in the Third World became an actual hassle for American plans during the Angolan decolonization crisis. By the late 1970s, détente was barely still alive. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, president Jimmy Carter reacted harshly. He called off American participation of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and convinced most Western allies to do the same, ended the sales of American grain to the USSR, and terminated the negotiations about the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
Carter was voted out of office in 1980. His successor Ronald Reagan continued Carter’s pivot away from détente, but added his own twist to it: He no longer saw the Cold War as a confrontation by negotiation, but rather as a fundamental challenge to be approached in similarly fundamental terms. Consequentially, Reagan called for regime change in the Soviet Union and employed a stark rhetorical distinction between the forces of good and evil, which he identified with the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively. In his most famous public speech of this kind he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”. It is important to note, however, that Reagan tailored his discourse to his audience which consisted of evangelical preachers at this occasion. Nonetheless, the rhetorical shift from rational power politics to a quasi-religious struggle was noted by domestic and international observers (including the Soviets).
Nuclear war might not seem like a very attractive prospect, but strategists had always pondered it since 1945. By the early 1980s, however, the American discourse on nuclear war shifted. It was no longer centered on the question how to plan for nuclear war in order to prevent it, but rather focused on ways with which to win a nuclear war. Could the United States endure a protracted nuclear war? Was it possible to incapacitate the enemy by a limited strike targeted at their command center – a “decapitation strike”? Strategists went to the very border of rational thought, and sometimes a few steps beyond.
This riskier approach to nuclear war coincided with the NATO decision of spring 1983 to deploy Pershing intermediate-range missiles and cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads in Europe. The first weapons were to arrive in Europe by November. Both kinds of weapons were hard to detect and harder to destroy, as they flew at low altitudes and were in the air for only a short time. The deployment answered the stationing of SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles by the Soviet Union. However, the Pershings and cruise missiles were aimed at the Soviet Union proper, whereas the United States were out of range of the SS-20 missiles (which had European targets). This kind of weaponry coupled with the new American thinking of decapitation strikes in winnable nuclear wars gave the Soviet leadership quite something to worry about.
The new American posture also showed in its approach to maneuvers. American warplanes flew constant feigned attacks on the Soviet Union just to turn away shortly before reaching Soviet airspace to keep the Soviets on their toes and test how their air defense forces would react. In April 1983, the United States and their allies conducted Fleetex ’83, the largest naval exercise in their history – right next to Soviet waters (with some planes even venturing into Soviet airspace for a brief time).
Finally, the Reagan administration was not content with contesting air and water. It quite literally aimed for the stars. On March 23, 1983, Reagan announced the development of a space-based missile defense system – the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or, as it became colloquially known: Star Wars. SDI undermined the logic of nuclear deterrence based on mutually assured destruction (MAD). While Reagan saw SDI as a genuine defensive and deterrent measure, the project would, upon completion, have shifted the nuclear balance toward an American offensive: Missile defense systems are unlikely to destroy a massive first strike with thousands of warheads, but they could much more easily deal with whatever was left for a retaliatory strike after one’s own first strike had wiped out most of the enemy’s capabilities already.
Therefore, by 1983 the United States employed new rhetoric, a new posture, and new weapons (or, at least the prospect of them) in the superpower conflict. The Soviet leadership – never more loath of change, domestic and foreign, than in the early 1980s viewed such new designs with suspicion. In return, Soviet diplomatic posts in the West were called to report on any events that might indicate a NATO attack. They counted how many cars were left in the parking lots of government buildings in the evenings and in which offices the lights were on until late. The Finland station kept an eye on the Americans in the country – government-employed or not – to see if they left the country by the masses. The British station even monitored the price of blood preservations for hospitals since they assumed the necessary stockpiling for a large-scale war would drive up prices. When a flu wave hit the country and many donors could not donate due to their illness, prices spiked – as did Soviet anxiety! The Soviets had developed a posture of almost paranoid vigilance.
The Hot Fall of 1983
Against the backdrop of this new phase in superpower relations, dramatic events would unfold. On September 1, 1983, a Korean Airlines passenger plane en route from Anchorage, Alaska to Seoul (flight number KAL-007) departed from its planned trajectory by 500 kilometers and went through Soviet airspace over Kamchatka for almost two hours. Neither Alaskan nor Japanese air control alerted the plane of any of these irregularities. This led the Soviets to assume that the plane had espionage equipment on board. At the second violation of Soviet airspace, this time over the island Sakhalin, they shot it down. All 269 passengers and staff on board died, including one American congressman. Reagan denounced the act as a “crime against humanity” and ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to revoke the Soviet airline Aeroflot’s license to operate flights to and from the United States, but didn’t take any further steps.
Less than a month later, on September 26, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet air defense forces was alerted in his early warning satellite command center that a single intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched from Montana. According to a launch-on-warning policy, this would have called for a massive nuclear counter-strike on the United States. Petrov had to decide quickly if to report incoming missiles to his superiors, before any potential attack could have devastated the Soviet Union, including her counter-strike capabilities. He dismissed the report claiming no nuclear attack of such a small scale was feasible against an enemy with large second-strike capabilities like the Soviet Union (despite all American strategy ideas about “decapitation strikes”). Petrov, of course, made the right call here. No American attack was imminent. The computer’s false alarm was likely due to a reflection of the sunlight on high-altitude clouds which the satellite mistook for an American launch. Petrov had just single-handedly saved the world.
The world outside of the superpower rivalry was not standing still either. On October 23 a bomb detonated in the barracks of the US Marines in Beirut. The terror attack was intended as a retaliation for US involvement in the Lebanese Civil War. Over 300 people were killed – the highest loss of life in a single day for the Marine Corps since the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
Only two days later, the United States invaded the small Caribbean island nation Grenada in response to a coup in which the radical wing of the Grenadian socialist government had overthrown the more moderate Grenadian socialists. It was the first large-scale overseas combat mission of US troops since Vietnam. The years of global restraint were certainly over.
In this climate the United States and their NATO allies went to conduct their military exercise Able Archer 83. Able Archer was huge. It was to take nine days from November 2 to November 11. Overall, 300,000 people (military and civilian) were involved, including president Reagan, British prime minister Thatcher, and West German chancellor Kohl. The exercise simulated both conventional and nuclear warfare in Central Europe, so the heads of government were to sit in their bunkers and take command from there. The Soviets responded to Able Archer by readying their troops in Central Europe and in the Baltic, including forces armed with nuclear weapons. On November 8, Soviet double agent Oleg Gordievsky reported to Western intelligence that the Soviet leadership feared the exercise was in fact a cover-up for Western war preparations. When Reagan was alerted about this, he commanded to take the exercise down a notch. He decided not to participate himself anymore in the exercise, took a vacation trip to his ranch and made sure the media would report about it to put the nervous Soviets at ease.
Toning It Down: The “Reagan Reversal”
The Cold War never got so hot again. Reagan was increasingly made aware of the Soviet anxieties about an American offensive strike – and dumbfounded that they thought he might attack them: “What the heck do they have that anyone would want?”, he is reported to have said. Two months after the end of Able Archer, Reagan delivered a speech outlining a new foreign policy based on negotiations. He argued that the United States had now regained a position of strength from which they could negotiate. Tacitly, he also dropped his former goal of regime change in the USSR.
Reagan’s speech has been interpreted differently. Some scholars see an actual big policy change in it – the “Reagan Reversal”. Others see it just as a change of tone to prevent dangerous misunderstandings. In any case, the speech was already planned before Able Archer commenced, so Reagan was likely not too much influenced by these events. It is also important to remember that Reagan’s more confrontational foreign policy had faced immense domestic criticism for having made the world more dangerous without a clear goal behind it – and 1984 was an election year. Reagan’s speech allowed him to shed his former stance while not having to admit it had been misguided (as it supposedly restored American strength as the base from which to negotiate now). Coupled with a timely revival of the American economy, Reagan won the 1984 election in a landslide. In his second term, Reagan – together with the new Soviet general secretary Gorbachev – achieved important agreements to improve superpower relations, implement arms control, and work towards the end of the Cold War.
The irony of the “Reagan Reversal” is that the allegedly war-scared Soviet leaders weren’t even all that afraid of an American attack. Sure, they increased the alert level for their own troops during Able Archer, but that was more of a standard operating procedure than a specific fear of war in that moment. Gordievsky’s reports about the Soviet leadership anxiously awaiting World War III was just not based on knowledge of Moscow’s inner political circles. The myth of war almost breaking out in 1983, however, gained popularity as it served many people well: The Soviets had the opportunity to present themselves as a peaceful nation concerned about imperialist aggression. Reagan could bury his failed over-ambitious foreign policy and settle for more realistic goals without looking weak, making him credible for vast parts of the electorate as well as allies and adversaries in Congress. Finally, Gordievsky lived pretty well of exaggerating his role in the events after the end of the Cold War. From the other side, the East German spies who had reported from the NATO headquarters during Able Archer also took the opportunity to let everyone know it had been their intelligence which had saved the world from nuclear war. This is not to say that the fall of 1983 was not dangerous. The danger, however, lay less in the deliberate designs of the superpowers (like Able Archer), and more in the unforeseeable situations. When general tensions coincided with a contingent event, the outcome was very much unpredictable. In this sense, the climax of fall 1983 was already Petrov’s decision whether to believe the reports about the US missile launch on September 26. Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov never received a formal commendation for his crucial and cool-headed act. He died in poverty in May 2017. History is not always kind to its heroes.
A gripping, albeit US-centric account of the events of fall 1983 and how they relate to the larger structure of the Cold War can be found (in German) in Schild, Georg: 1983. Das gefährlichste Jahr des Kalten Krieges, Ferdinand Schöningh, Paderborn 2013.
On the question how concerned the Soviets actually were about Able Archer, see Mastny, Vojtech: How Able Was „Able Archer“? Nuclear Trigger and Intelligence in Perspective, Journal of Cold War Studies 11, 2009, p. 108—123.
Gordievsky’s original account on his role as a double agent was published as Andrew, Christopher/Gordievsky, Oleg: K.G.B. The Inside Story, Hodder & Stoughton Limited, London 1990.
On the “Reagan Reversal”, see Fischer, Beth: The Reagan Reversal. Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, MO 1997.
1. Reagan’s views of and claims about the USSR were partially informed by John Birch Society pamphlets from the 1950s.
2. The last movie in the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi, hit the theaters two months after Reagan’s speech.
3. Personally, I find using a plane with the flight number 007 is almost brazen on an espionage mission.
4. In hindsight, the most far-reaching consequence was Reagan’s decision to open GPS for civilian use a few weeks after the incident. Whenever you use Google Maps on your phone to find your way in a new city the next time, remember KAL-007.