The U.S.S.R. and U.S. Came Closer to Nuclear War Than We Thought

A series of war games held in 1983 triggered "the moment of maximum danger of the late Cold War."
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Military vehicles move along Red Square in Moscow during a Victory Day parade on May 9, 2009. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

An ailing, 69-year-old Yuri Andropov was running the Soviet Union from his Moscow hospital bed in 1983 as the United States and its NATO allies conducted a massive series of war games that seemed to confirm some of his darkest fears.

Two years earlier Andropov had ordered KGB officers around the globe to gather evidence for what he was nearly certain was coming: A surprise nuclear strike by the U.S. that would decapitate the Soviet leadership. While many didn't believe that the U.S. had such plans, they dutifully supplied the Kremlin with whatever suspicious evidence they could find, feeding official paranoia.

For two years, KGB agents had been scouring the world for evidence of what the Soviet leadership believed were U.S. preparations for all-out nuclear war against the U.S.S.R.

The Western maneuvers that autumn, called Autumn Forge, were depicted by the Pentagon as simply a large military exercise. But its scope was hardly routine, as Americans learned in detail this week, for the first time, from declassified documents published by the National Security Archive, a Washington-based nonprofit research organization.

To the Russians, it could easily have looked like a genuine preparation for a nuclear strike, the documents revealed: A total of 40,000 U.S. and NATO troops were moved across Western Europe, including 16,044 U.S. troops airlifted overseas in 170 missions conducted in radio silence.

More ominously, U.S. and NATO officers practiced the procedures they would have to follow to authorize and conduct nuclear strikes in an unpublicized exercise called Able Archer 83, shifting their headquarters as the game escalated toward chemical and nuclear warfare. In communications, they several times referred to non-nuclear B-52 sorties as nuclear "strikes" -- slips of the tongue that could have been intercepted by Soviet eavesdroppers.

While historians have previously noted the high risk of an accidental nuclear war during this period, the new documents make even clearer how the world's rival superpowers found themselves blindly edging toward the brink of nuclear war through suspicion, belligerent posturing and blind miscalculation.

In a coincidence that could have proved catastrophic, the script for the maneuvers dovetailed snugly and perilously with the Soviets' fears that they were under threat, coupled with nagging doubts about their ability to protect themselves from U.S. military might.

The problem with this brinksmanship was that it increased the risk of a nuclear exchange due to miscalculation, according to Nate Jones, a Cold War historian with the National Security Archive who edited and published the collection of more than 50 documents, totaling more than 1,000 pages, in three installments beginning May 16 and ending Thursday.

Ranging from presidential note cards to previously secret CIA reports, the documents describing Able Archer 83 offer fresh insight into a much studied but incompletely understood episode in the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. "This episode should be studied more because it shows that U.S. leaders might not have learned as much from the Cuban missile crisis [about avoiding accidental conflict] as they should have," Jones said.

In the current edition of the Journal of Strategic Studies, Israeli historian Dmitry Adamsky calls the 1983 war games "the moment of maximum danger of the late Cold War." Able Archer, he wrote "almost became a prelude to a preventative nuclear strike."

The March 1984 edition of Air Man Magazine , a rare detailed public account, called Autumn Forge "the biggest North Atlantic Treaty Alliance show of force of the year -- a test of military readiness in the context of NATO's deterrent mission." But the article emphasized the air lift, never mentioning rehearsal for nuclear war.

Even the troops on maneuver tried not to draw too much attention to themselves. At Dusseldorf Airport, the 45th Tactical Air Wing commander had his planes park away from the passenger terminal to keep a low profile. Most travelers, he was sure, were not even aware of troop activity at the airport.

But the Pentagon knew that the Soviets were monitoring his troops' every move. "The series of exercises are watched very carefully by the Eastern Bloc nations, just as we try to watch their exercises as closely as we can, to learn tactics and procedures," Air Force Maj. Gen. William E. Overacker told Air Man.

The impetus for the exercise came from the White House, "where they wanted to stare down the Soviet bear," said Jones.

Tensions had heated up that September, after the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which had strayed into Soviet air space. The administration responded with stepped-up surveillance, and provocative naval maneuvers, and pressed for the deployment of new Pershing II missiles in Europe capable of reaching Moscow in less than ten minutes.

Considered in a vacuum, Able Archer 83, in which officer's at NATO's Belgium headquarters practiced their response to hypothetical chemical and nuclear conflict with a thinly-disguised Soviet Union, might not have seemed particularly threatening.

But for two years prior to Able Archer 83, KGB agents had been scouring the world for evidence of what the Soviet leadership in general -- and Andropov in particular -- believed were U.S. preparations for all-out nuclear war against the U.S.S.R.

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