Ask a Baby Boomer — or most historians for that matter — to single out the most perilous moment of the Cold War, and without hesitation the answer will come back: the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. The Soviet attempt to place nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba brought the United States and the Soviets close to the brink of war, and only the calm and steady ministrations of President John F. Kennedy resolved the crisis peacefully.
Or so the legend goes. Americans didn’t learn for some years that Kennedy agreed secretly to withdraw American missiles from Turkey, which would slowly alter the strategic balance between the NATO alliance and the Soviets in ways that created significant problems starting a decade later. Without intermediate-range missiles in the European theater, the American strategic deterrent gradually lost credibility in the face of an immense Soviet buildup of intercontinental ballistic missiles, intermediate-range theater missiles — especially the SS-20 — and conventional forces deployed throughout eastern Europe. This growing asymmetry led the NATO alliance in 1979 to endorse a plan to install American-made intermediate missiles — chiefly cruise missiles and the Pershing 2 missile — in western Europe by 1983 if the Soviets didn’t agree to de-escalate through arms-control talks. It was a contentious decision that roiled European politics throughout the early 1980s, and it might not have happened that way had Kennedy not made such a crucial concession in 1962.
Whether or not that judgment is fair, since the late 1980s, there has been increasing interest in the possibility that the Cuban missile crisis was not the most harrowing moment of the Cold War but rather that it occurred in the fall of 1983. That November, the U.S. began to deploy the long-planned missiles in Europe. At the same time as the missiles were being uncrated and set up, NATO ramped up an unusually large annual military exercise known as “Able Archer,” which the Soviets suspected might be a ruse to disguise the launch of an all-out war. The Soviets went on high alert, and were said to have contemplated a first strike.
How close were we to blundering into nuclear war? There has been confusion, uncertainty, and dispute about this episode ever since, though we do know that a false attack warning in the Soviet Union in late September 1983 almost sent the missiles flying. It occurred at an especially tense moment in the Cold War. Reagan had declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in March of that year and followed up two weeks later with the announcement of his ambitious missile-defense program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Critics dubbed it “Star Wars,” but SDI was deeply threatening to the Soviets and upended the settled strategic nuclear doctrine of more than two decades, much to the consternation of our allies and our own defense and arms-control establishment.
All of this took place in the context of a deliberate decision by the Reagan administration to abandon the remnants of détente and adopt a more aggressive strategy toward the Soviet Union. The Soviets weren’t taking this supinely, and they engaged in a disinformation and propaganda campaign designed to split the NATO alliance on the eve of the missile deployments. The Soviet shootdown of a passenger airliner, Korean Air Flight 007, in September, and the American invasion of Grenada in late October exacerbated already raw nerves.
The war scare remains a matter of keen interest, even having made its way into popular culture in the form of a recent German TV miniseries, Deutschland 83, that follows the basic story line accurately with due allowances for dramatic adaptations. The show was received coolly in Germany — probably because its East German point of view summons up still raw and delicate sentiments about the unnatural Cold War division of the country — but has been a hit elsewhere in Europe and overseas. (The show and its sequel, Deutschland 86, are broadcast and streaming on Sundance.)
Two new books examine this fraught period with fresh eyes and a deep dive into the individual testimony and other evidence that has become available since the end of the Cold War. The evidence remains mostly circumstantial to this day. Neither book settles the question of how close the Soviets actually came to “pushing the button,” but both tell the broader story well and offer important insights into the period that apply to some of the strategic problems that remain in the post–Cold War era.
Marc Ambinder’s The Brink explores in painstaking detail the practical problems of war-planning and -execution and how these are the essential backdrop to understanding the Able Archer war scare. Everyone knows that nuclear weapons are nearly unusable because of their extreme destructive power, but Ambinder goes much further, to explain how the problems of command, control, and communications (“3-Cubed” as they are known in the trade) increased the instability of the Cold War’s balance of terror. The Pentagon had plans for various war scenarios (known serially as “OpPlan” or” SIOP” — Single Integrated Operational Plan), but the defect in all such plans is the problem of communication. Because nuclear weapons require safeguards against an accidental launch or rogue military officer, nuclear-weapons control involves elaborate communication procedures and authentication codes. But the ability to communicate reliably in the case of an actual attack was always doubtful. Communication often broke down in peacetime exercises. The need to coordinate with our NATO allies in the event of a war added an additional layer of complication to executing any war plan.
Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union maintained active programs to disrupt the communications of the other should war break out, with elaborate message-spoofing capabilities and code-breaking (more often code-stealing) espionage. Ambinder dug deep to interview a number of mid- and lower-level military officers from the time who were responsible for securing the launch codes and the equipment necessary to execute any presidential orders, as well as for the weapons themselves. What emerges is a hair-raising catalogue of gaps, improvisations, confusions, and vulnerabilities that make you wonder how anyone could have had confidence that our nuclear systems could be used in a real conflict.
The problem of “3-Cubed” grew especially acute by the early 1980s for the simple reason that the nuclear arsenals of both countries had grown so large that neither side would be able to respond effectively to a first strike. Therefore it seemed not only possible but perhaps inevitable that one side would launch a decapitating first strike preemptively. The Soviets, rattled by Reagan’s vigorous challenge, thought the U.S. might launch such a strike, and so they set in motion an intelligence project — known as “RYAN” — to gather evidence of a U.S. war plan. This circumstance was the proximate cause of the Able Archer war scare. The Soviets put their armed forces on high alert and rolled out a large portion of their air-force planes into a ready position, but the signs of Soviet paranoia and potential preparations for their own possible preemptive strike were not perceived in the West. Robert Gates commented years after, “We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.”
Taylor Downing’s book, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, is not as detailed or thorough as Ambinder’s, but it distills the essence of the matter: This was a massive intelligence failure, on both sides. Despite all of the advanced technical means of spying and the hordes of expert analysts each nation employed to reach judgments about the other, neither side’s intelligence agency had an accurate grasp of what was going on. The avoidance of war in November 1983 may have come down to the actions of two double agents — Rainer Rupp, a German posted at NATO headquarters who was spying for the Soviets (and the inspiration for the main character in Deutschland 83), and Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB station chief in London whom British intelligence had recruited some years before. At a crucial moment during Able Archer, Rupp transmitted a message to the Soviets that no attack was planned. Meanwhile, Gordievsky was telling his British spymasters of the Soviets’ deep concern over a possible U.S. surprise attack and of the intense Soviet intelligence operation to detect it, which information the British passed along to the U.S.
American officials were slow to grasp what Gordievsky’s warnings and other intelligence findings meant, and it is not clear when Reagan and his senior aides began to perceive the depth of Soviet paranoia. Months after Able Archer finished, the intelligence community remained divided and dubious about whether the Soviets were truly mobilized against the possibility of a surprise attack, let alone contemplating their own preemptive strike. Skeptics thought Gordievsky was embellishing his warnings in an effort to burnish his status with British intelligence, but the British — and eventually the U.S. — believed him to be sincere and accurate. Some analysts thought the reports were Soviet disinformation, and there are good reasons for thinking that even the decrepit leadership of the Soviet Union (General Secretary Yuri Andropov was hospitalized for much of this period and died in February 1984) couldn’t really have believed that the U.S. would attack unprovoked. Cooler heads on the Politburo, such as Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, knew better. Minutes from a Politburo meeting in May 1983, declassified and released after the fall of the Soviet Union, record Gromyko arguing against the idea that the U.S. would ever consider a first strike: “The United States, as is known, is talking about the fact that they can only strike in response to aggression. I think that they without enough reason wouldn’t dare to use nuclear missiles. Against the first strike are also Canada, England, France, and West Germany.”
It is not clear exactly when Reagan was first told of the possibility that the Soviets genuinely feared a U.S. first strike. He noted in his diary on November 18 that the Soviets are “so paranoid about being attacked.” Reagan thought the idea ridiculous: “What the h — l have they got that anyone would want.” While neither Ambinder nor Downing offers much new insight into his thinking and subsequent statecraft, both avoid embracing the erroneous view that the war scare of 1983 caused Reagan to reverse course and become a born-again détente advocate. Observers have often been misled by Reagan’s conciliatory January 1984 speech on U.S.–Soviet relations, but a close look at his words and deeds for the rest of his presidency shows that he maintained a consistent anti-Soviet disposition while grasping that circumstances had changed in our favor, allowing him room to reach arms-reduction deals and set the course for the surprisingly swift end of the Soviet Union. Overall, Ambinder and Downing represent a revisionism that departs markedly from the partisan and ideological characterizations of the Reagan administration in his own time. CIA director William Casey, for example, had consistently bad press while in office, but both authors regard him as a supremely able and effective CIA chief. Ambinder writes that “Casey was one of the smartest men ever to serve the agency,” a sentence virtually no mainstream journalist would have been caught dead writing in the 1980s.
Neither book offers a solution either to the problem of managing nuclear weapons today (Ambinder ends with a chapter anxious about how Trump will deal with North Korea) or to the sort of intelligence deficiencies on both sides that led to the problem at the forefront of Kennedy’s mind during the Cuban missile crisis — the risk of accidental war because of a miscalculation. It is impossible to know what might have happened in 1983 or 1984 in the absence of the two human intelligence assets, Gordievsky and Rupp. The British exfiltrated Gordievsky out of Moscow in 1985 in a daring operation that deserves full Hollywood treatment (his cover was blown by the CIA traitor Aldrich Ames), and West Germany discovered and arrested Rupp in 1993.
If the war scare of 1983 shows the intelligence capacities of both sides in a bad light, Seth Jones’s A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA, and the Cold War Struggle in Poland shows the CIA at its best. Like Ambinder and Downing, Jones offers new information and a favorable account of Reagan and Casey, in this case their efforts to exploit Poland as the Achilles’ heel of the Soviet empire. A Covert Action brims with details about the political deliberations and supply operations that unfolded during the ’80s. American covert support for Poland’s Solidarity movement was a delicate affair. Organizing and arming a Polish resistance was considered but ruled out early as unlikely to succeed and too provocative, and the CIA had to be careful not to leave obvious fingerprints and thereby a justification for further crackdowns and Soviet propaganda. The CIA also decided to keep Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity trade-union movement, out of all of its intrigues, to protect him from being labeled an American stooge, though the Soviets made that charge anyway. The CIA was effective in using cutouts to hide its tracks, but one of the surprises of Jones’s account is that neutral Sweden, a non–NATO member, became a key conduit for supplying Polish dissidents with radios, printing presses, and other equipment to bolster the Polish resistance. How much cash the CIA funneled to the resistance is unknown — probably by Casey’s design.
The role of the Catholic Church, and of Pope John Paul II, was vitally important but remains murky. Whatever documentary evidence may exist in the Vatican archives is closed for several more decades, and figures from the time who are still alive remain discreet for the simple reason that disclosing any covert cooperation with the United States could undermine the Church in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes today, such as China. Reagan had thought from the moment Karol Wojtyla, a Pole, became Pope John Paul II in 1978 that the Catholic Church and religious fervency in Poland could be exploited to undermine the Soviet Union. Reagan was enraged when Poland declared martial law at the Soviets’ behest at the end of 1981, and starting in 1982 he and his senior aides were in close contact with the Vatican about all matters concerning Poland. The U.S. generally deferred to John Paul II’s reading of the situation. Taking a long view appropriate for a theological man, the pope counseled patience and conciliation, believing time was on the side of freedom.
Sure enough, Poland was the first of the Eastern European Soviet satellite states to throw off Communist rule, in 1989, which set off the rest of Eastern Europe in something of a domino effect. It has been fashionable since the Cold War ended for revisionists to argue that the fall of the Soviet Union was inevitable because of its structural defects. While these new books do not weigh in on this broader judgment, they make clear that the United States and its allies exploited the weakening Soviet position with deliberate and well-crafted pressure and surely hastened the end of this epic confrontation.