Ready to Blow

In 1983, a nuclear war game almost turned real. Have we learned our lesson? 

How times change. One of the most alarming features of daily life in the United States just a generation ago has seemingly disappeared. Between 1945 and 1991, as Americans went to work, took their children to school, watched ball games, and napped on the beach, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union hummed in the background. Frightening terms like “nonproliferation,” “nuclear winter,” and “mutually assured destruction” were fixtures of newspapers and the evening news. Schools taught children how to duck and cover. Strategists asked whether the Russians were as afraid of us as we were of them. The world continued turning, but under a shadow. Meanwhile the missiles sat fueled and ready to launch.

The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983
by Marc Ambinder
Simon and Schuster, 384 pp

Another dusty term from those bygone days is “war game.” The mechanics of Armageddon had to be rehearsed and refined. Combat scenarios would be played out, the enemy’s moves and countermoves anticipated and trumped. Hollywood made the term famous with the 1983 film WarGames, in which a military supercomputer ceases to distinguish between simulation and reality, and World War III is narrowly averted by a teenage hacker played by Matthew Broderick.

Five months after WarGames was released, a NATO war game called Able Archer 83 nearly led to a real-world nuclear encounter between the United States and the Soviet Union. The National Security Agency has described the years from 1982 to 1984 as “the most dangerous Soviet-American confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” and Able Archer was that period’s most precarious flash point, as the Soviets came to fear that the war game was a cover for an attack by the West. The exercise, which took place between November 7 and 11, 1983, was designed to simulate the moment when a conventional war in Europe shifted to a chemical and nuclear one. In the end, Orange (NATO) would annihilate Blue (Warsaw Pact) in a full-scale nuclear attack. 

Journalist Marc Ambinder tells the story of Able Archer in The Brink. The book, while not without its faults, is well researched and eerily topical. Tensions with Russia have nearly returned to Cold War levels. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 2011 will lapse in a few years unless it is extended; the multilateral Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is fraying. Brinkmanship with North Korea was at a sixty-five-year high only months ago, and there’s no guarantee that the current thaw will endure. As I was beginning to write this article, President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the treaty designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program. It is a sobering moment to be reminded of the terrible price of miscalculation or mistake during what still is, after all, the nuclear age.

One of the strengths and weaknesses of The Brink is the unusual amount of context it provides before turning to the main event. Able Archer itself does not begin until the book’s final third. (Ambinder helpfully explains the exercise’s strange title: “Able was a random adjective allocated by a Pentagon computer,” and “Archer was picked off a list of nouns.”) While this can make for a slow reading experience, it also has the benefit of revealing why this particular exercise, among countless others during the Cold War, flirted with catastrophe.

The early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency saw harsh rhetoric from his administration, weak and inconsistent leadership from the Soviets, and little dialogue between the two adversaries. Nuclear stockpiles grew rather than shrank. Russia wheezed its way through three sclerotic premiers: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. These were the years before Reagan and a young reformer named Mikhail Gorbachev began meeting and talking their way out of a death grip. In June 1982, Reagan predicted that Marxism would end on the “ash heap of history.” In March 1983, he raised the rhetorical stakes by labeling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” (The third-season finale of The Americans memorably captured how Reagan’s bellicose statement played to Russian listeners. I recommend watching it.)

Global tensions only grew throughout 1983. On September 1, the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, having mistaken it for an American reconnaissance plane. Reagan responded by labeling the act a crime against humanity. In October, a terrorist bombing at the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killed 307 American and French service members. Just days later, the United States invaded Grenada to roll back a Soviet-supported communist coup, leading to—from Russia’s perspective—an ominous spike in signals traffic between the Americans and the British. Over fierce Soviet objections, the United States stationed missiles in Europe that could reach Moscow. “The Soviets had no doubt concluded by mid-1983,” Ambinder writes, “that U.S. policy had fundamentally changed course.”

One of the Soviet Union’s responses during these years was Operation RYaN, first announced in May 1981. Because the United States was “actively preparing for a nuclear war,” according to the KGB, Operation RYaN (an acronym for “Nuclear Missile Attack” in Russian) would escalate Soviet intelligence activities. In other words, the Russians began watching us far more closely. As Nate Jones of the National Security Archive explains in his outstanding monograph Able Archer 83, published in 2016, the theory of mutually assured destruction began to wane. Instead, “each side began to rely upon the doctrine of Launch on Warning.” Because a successful strike might destroy the enemy before it could counterattack, each side prepared to launch at the earliest sign of incoming missiles. Nuclear planning had evolved to the point where the first strike might also be the last.

It was in this paranoid moment that the Able Archer war game began. The Russians monitored it closely. They saw indications that the operation could be more than a drill. It was Soviet military doctrine, after all, that the Americans might use a war game as cover for an attack. During the exercise, NATO allies kept radio silence and counted down through all five phases of DEFCON, the U.S. Armed Forces’ defense readiness system. They loaded their warheads and stated in internal communications that they had been the subject of nuclear strikes. An American nuclear missile submarine cruising near Iceland opened its hatches and—to the dismay of its crew, who didn’t know it was just a simulation—received an order stating “release authority pending.” Dramatically, NATO airlifted 19,000 American soldiers to Europe in an operation involving 170 flights. And, compounding the tensions, NATO ran a separate exercise during the same period, activating B-52 bombers for the first time in a war game. Ambinder writes that the “B-52 presence meant one thing to the Soviets: nuclear strikes.”

The Russians and their Warsaw Pact allies responded by placing their nuclear forces on alert. Warsaw Pact members grounded flights to make their planes available for combat, alerted nuclear-capable aircraft in eastern Europe, and moved nuclear weapons to their delivery systems from storage. Any miscalculation during these critical hours could have led to calamity.

Each side gathered critical intelligence through spies. The Soviets had Rainer Rupp, who passed them classified documents from his position as head of NATO’s Current Intelligence Group in Brussels. During Able Archer, “Rupp left work at NATO headquarters and drove to the outskirts of the city. He found a telephone booth and dialed a number.” Using a coded transmission system, he informed his spymaster in East Germany that Able Archer was just a drill. NATO had its own man, Oleg Gordievsky, a disaffected KGB operative who worked as a double agent for the British out of the London rezidentura. He reported on the Russians’ frantic movements directly to Margaret Thatcher.

Reagan read Gordievsky’s reports, too, after Able Archer ended. Neither he nor other heads of government in NATO countries participated directly in the war game. But Ambinder contends that learning how close the world had come to oblivion helped spur the president into the engagement-and-disarmament phase of his second term. Ambinder also recounts a fascinating scene during a 1982 exercise when William Clark, the national security advisor, decided to invite Reagan to observe from the Situation Room. “He knew Reagan’s mind. The president interpreted the world by reaching back to fables, archetypes, old stories; he would remember nothing if you merely discussed it with him. But if you showed him something, especially something with a resonance . . . he would never forget it.”

The Brink is a sobering read. It is also a frustrating one. Ambinder rotates through a cast of characters, which should give narrative force to the story but more often results in a choppy, confusing text that disorients readers and leaves them short of basic facts. Jones’s Able Archer 83 is a much clearer, more forceful, and, ultimately, more illuminating account.

Yet any reminder of the nuclear abyss is welcome at this uncertain moment. A complacent citizenry has begun to forget the awful stakes of the 1980s, just as reckless leaders wave their bombs around like six-shooters. Some of today’s nuclear adversaries are familiar, others are new. The challenge of not blowing up the planet is exactly
the same.

Michael O’Donnell

Michael O’Donnell is a lawyer in the Chicago area. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic.