Democracy Dies in Darkness

Outlook | Review

When a Reagan-Soviet showdown nearly launched Armageddon

August 31, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Matthew Dallek, an associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, is working on a book about the John Birch Society.

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range missiles during a White House ceremony on Dec. 8, 1987. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

One of the Cold War’s scariest years was 1983. Although detente had eased superpower tensions in the 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union were edging toward the precipice during Ronald Reagan’s third year in office. In March, Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” rattling the men in the Kremlin. The president backed up his words with deeds. He lavished the U.S. military with funding, issued national security orders directing his government to wage economic and political war against the U.S.S.R., and announced his plan for a Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. “Star Wars”), which was supposed to establish a nuclear shield that would take out any incoming ballistic missiles and render “mutually assured destruction” obsolete.

For their part, Soviet leaders started to fear that the West was newly emboldened and that Reagan was willing to launch a first nuclear strike. The world shuddered when a Korean passenger plane strayed into Soviet airspace, the Russian military shot it down and Reagan branded it a “crime against humanity.” The pent-up fears, suspicions and tensions came to a boil when Soviet leaders misread NATO’s Able Archer 83 war game. Concluding that the exercise was actually the start of a first strike, the Kremlin put its soldiers in garrisons, moved its nuclear missiles near military jets and mobilized its nuclear arsenal for war.

“Misunderstandings, the consequence of trying to control the uncontrollable, hurtled the world toward a conflict that not one single thinking person on either side ever wanted,” Marc Ambinder writes in “The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983.” His book describes the scare from the vantage point of the soldiers, spies, military commanders and political leaders who had to try to manage it, and how leaders of good will on both sides were trapped in a cycle of mistaken assumptions, mutual fears and human foibles. This deeply researched book is written with verve, and serves as a study in the messy intricacies of nuclear doctrine and the utter incapacity of humans to faithfully control awesome arsenals of unfathomable destructive force. Although both Washington and Moscow extensively prepared for nuclear war and did their utmost to guard against nuclear accidents, the leadership understood that war meant decapitation of the government on each side, leaving all decisions in the hands of unelected or untested officials. “The soundness and reliability of nuclear command and control was largely a myth,” Ambinder finds.

Other problems beyond the control of those responsible for safeguarding the nuclear arsenals were equally concerning in that fear-drenched time. For example, Capt. Lee Trolan, commander of the 501st Army Artillery Detachment, who helped secure nuclear missiles in West Germany’s Fulda Gap, nursed legitimate fears that a left-wing, anti-imperialist terrorist organization would attempt to invade his facility and sabotage his nukes. Ambinder reports how “Trolan’s site was regularly bombarded with phoned-in bomb threats.” Trolan took the threats so seriously that he found them “scary.”

The technology was imperfect and prone to failure. Once, Soviet satellites indicated that an intercontinental ballistic missile launched from the United States was heading toward the Soviet Union. But the satellites had merely picked up on “reflections from high clouds passing over F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.” Even though war had been averted, it was a near thing.

“The Brink” is not all a bleak narrative about the war that almost came to be in that terror-tinged year. Ambinder also explains how the war scare became a seedbed for the unwinding of Cold War tensions and communism’s collapse by decade’s end. “The politicians, strategic thinkers, generals, and intelligence professionals who made hard choices in the early 1980s deserve to be ranked in the upper echelons of historic achievement,” he asserts. “They helped win the Cold War. They deserve credit for that.” In his judgment, as tensions peaked, Reagan started to empathize with the Soviet leadership, recognizing how much they feared him. He let them know that he was not going to launch a first strike and that he was serious about diplomatic negotiations. He dialed down the rhetoric and evolved during his time in the Oval Office. After the close calls of his early White House tenure, Reagan “began to try to understand the world through the minds of the Soviet leaders.”

This “Reagan-centric” view of how the Cold War ended is part of a growing trend in scholarship. But it tends to shortchange Mikhail Gorbachev’s arguably more influential role in winding down the Cold War, as well as decades-long developments — such as the lure of Western capitalism and the appeal of Western materialism, as historian Stephen Kotkin has argued — in explaining the decline of the Soviet-U.S. standoff. Nonetheless, Ambinder shows Reagan and his team moving deliberately and thoughtfully to ease tensions in the wake of the war scare, contributing to our understanding of Reagan’s role in this milestone.

At times, “The Brink” moves so quickly from scene to scene and involves so many characters, plotlines and acronyms (SIOP, RYAN, NMCC) that the arc of the story can be hard to track; the themes of the book get obscured in the whipsaw-like narration. Ultimately, however, “The Brink” conveys not just the causes of the 1983 war scare but also how control of nuclear weaponry is inherently a flawed human undertaking. In spite of safeguards and plans put in place by the world’s most advanced militaries, political leaders had far less control over the use of such weapons in 1983 than anybody cared to admit publicly. And even though the collapse of communism reduced the threat of nuclear war between the superpowers, the continued existence of nuclear weapons remains a major threat to the human race in the 21st century — a point Ambinder drives home in his haunting study.

The Brink

President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare
of 1983

By Marc Ambinder

Simon & Schuster.

364 pp. $27


Matthew Dallek, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, is author of "Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security."

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