1983: The year that almost didn't end

August 6, 2013, at 10:31 PM

How close, really, was a state of actual war between the Soviet Union and NATO forces in 1983? The best documentary evidence sets the doomsday clock close to midnight. Viewed one way, 1983 saw a series of major escalations and provocations by both sides, each meant to respond to the other, all leading up to a genuine misapprehension about the goal of NATO's early November war games exercise, Able Archer. Or perhaps it was all bluster, a convenient fiction that both sides bought in to because neither had the imagination to see beyond it?

Since we're all still here, we can't say for sure. But we can, among other techniques, prioritize the actions and words of senior political leaders said in private. As seriously as Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech was taken by the Soviet Union, more telling was the then-secret decision by Reagan aides to rewrite the nuclear employment plans and make it easier to cross the threshold between conventional and nuclear war. The same goes for a newly released set of documents in Britain, one of which is a speech that Queen Elizabeth was to give in the event of World War III. Actually, it was an exercise planner's guess at what the queen would want to say, and chances are that she neither saw it or was aware of it. But the fact that those senior defense officials participating in the early 1983 war games felt that they had to include something as potently authentic as the queen's post-Armageddon speech suggests that exercise planners needed participants to respond in a visceral way to the "war." If a document like this were to have leaked at the time — and there were a LOT of leaks from Whitehall at the time — the consequences might have been grave. The queen's speech was important enough to the exercise to be included, and drawn up in her own voice. (President Eisenhower reportedly asked broadcaster Arthur Godfrey to draft and voice a doomsday address to be broadcast to the nation in the event of the president's decapitation by nuclear strike. That recording, if it exists, is a holy grail for those of us who study the end of the world.)

By November of 1983, Russia was convinced that U.S. nuclear doctrine had changed to include a tilt toward a launch-on-warning or first-strike posture. Ronald Reagan steadfastly denied that this was true, and his advisers were truly aghast to learn, in December of 1983, how seriously that belief was held by the Politburo and the Soviet military. While the nuclear playbook had changed, America never seriously contemplated a nuclear first strike. But America was not the only country that had input into NATO nuclear-decision-making. Britain, of course, had its own view — views, actually. And one of the new documents indeed suggests that senior defense officials firmly believed that the only way to avoid total annihilation in the event of a single Soviet missile launch, or even in the event of some other non-nuclear provocation, was to strike first and strike with force. The Soviet Union had several spies within the U.K.'s defense establishment. The KGB and the GRU were on high alert that year, tasked to provide Moscow with any signs or signals that NATO countries were actually preparing for a first strike. That the U.K. had concluded that only a first strike would lead to a winnable war is not the same thing as a formal policy that committed the nation to waging one. But it was certainly enough to set the enemy on edge. It becomes easier to see how paranoia, or just fear, would color the interpretation of these facts.






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