35 years ago

Today in 1983, I was a freshman at UW–Madison. My first-semester schedule — a horrid screwed-up mess because, in the troglodyte days of assignment committees to register for classes — I had just one comparative-literature class and marching band practice on Wednesdays. That’s what I remember, anyway.

A lot of people on the politically overstimulated UW–Madison campus were discussing ABC-TV’s upcoming movie “The Day After,” which depicted the U.S. following a nuclear war.

Unknown to us this day, the day of the movie (which I missed because that was also the night of the UW Marching Band banquet, a far more important event) or for years afterward was that apparently the U.S. and the Soviet Union came close to preempting “The Day After” for the real thing.

The Economist reviews 1983: Reagan, Andropov and a World on the Brink:

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was terrifying, but at least both sides knew the world was on the brink of catastrophe. As Taylor Downing’s snappily told account lays bare, what arguably made the near-miss of November 9th 1983 worse was that the West had almost no idea the Soviet leadership believed war was imminent.

East-West relations had been in dire straits for years. Ronald Reagan’s soaring anti-communist rhetoric, terming the Soviet bloc an “evil empire”, inspired freedom-lovers on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but panicked the Politburo gerontocracy. So too did his idealistic belief that missile-defence (“Star Wars”) might keep the peace better than MAD (mutually assured destruction). A hi-tech arms race spelled doom for the Soviet Union.

As communication had shrivelled, misunderstandings mushroomed. When the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner that had veered drastically off course into their airspace, nobody in the American administration could countenance the idea that the tragedy might be (as it was) a blunder, not an atrocity. The Soviets were certain the plane was on a spying mission.

NATO’s “Able Archer” exercise was also wildly misinterpreted. The Kremlin was convinced it masked war preparations. A routine change of NATO codes made the Soviets assume a nuclear first strike was imminent. In fact the KGB had an agent in the heart of NATO, Rainer Rupp. In response to an emergency request, he assured Moscow, with some bemusement, that everything in the alliance’s civilian bureaucracy was ticking along as normal. But the spymasters discounted the information, while “toadying KGB officers on the ground…sent back alarmist reports.” If the Soviet misreading of NATO intentions was a colossal intelligence failure, so was the inability of Western intelligence to realise just how jittery and ill-informed the Communist leadership had become.

As the Soviet Union put its nuclear forces on high alert, Lieutenant-General Leonard Perroots, the American air-force intelligence chief in Europe, reacted with puzzlement. A quid pro quo might have triggered an all-out nuclear war, which would, as Mr Downing puts it, leave only “cockroaches and scorpions” alive. Luckily, Perroots did nothing. After a sleepless night, the Kremlin leadership, huddled in a clinic outside Moscow with the ailing general secretary, Yuri Andropov, realised nothing was going to happen.

Mr Downing’s book gives abundant historical background, perhaps too much for readers familiar with the period. A useful later chapter depicts how realisation of the Soviet panic unfolded in the West, first in classified assessments and eventually, long after the event, in the public domain—not least thanks to Mr Downing’s television documentary, screened in 2008. He wisely avoids questions of the morality of nukes. Instead he focuses on the shortcomings that made accidental nuclear war far too plausible.

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