1983: The year that almost didn't end

On the significance of the queen's World War III speech

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.)

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is TheWeek.com's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.