Nuclear war was imminent in 1983. Who knew?

Recently declassified documents show a NATO military exercise in 1983 came close to provoking a war with the Soviet Union. Moscow misinterpreted the exercise, called “Able Archer”, as actual preparation for war and responded immediately, The Guardian writes:

“As Able Archer commenced, the Kremlin gave instructions for a dozen aircraft in East Germany and Poland to be fitted with nuclear weapons. In addition, around 70 SS-20 missiles were placed on heightened alert, while Soviet submarines carrying nuclear ballistic missiles were sent under the Arctic ice so that they could avoid detection.”

“The cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Robert Armstrong, briefed Thatcher that the Soviets’ response did not appear to be an exercise because it “took place over a major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was limited geographically to the area, central Europe, covered by the Nato exercise which the Soviet Union was monitoring”.”

The episode shows two things. First, Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric against the USSR in the early 1980s was more dangerous than we thought, as it gave Moscow reason to believe an attack was in the works. Second, it shows that the by far the most likely cause of nuclear war is accident or misunderstanding. There is nor rational reason to start a nuclear war, as long as mutual destruction is assured. But false information over an imminent attack can upend this balance from one moment to another. In the words of Peter Burt, director of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS):

“The Cold War is sometimes described as a stable ‘balance of power’ between east and west, but the Able Archer story shows that it was in fact a shockingly dangerous period when the world came to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on more than one occasion.”

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Filed under Europe, Russia, U.S.

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