Newly declassified documents reveal how America missed a major nuclear war scare

New evidence shows that the Able Archer '83 scare was very real

President Reagan in November 1981
(Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS)

A freshly declassified report confirms that the U.S. intelligence community, in 1983 and 1984, gave insufficient weight to evidence that the leaders of the Soviet Union genuinely feared a surprise nuclear missile attack from the West, misinterpreted Kremlin pronouncements as propaganda, and, most critically, failed to provide warning about significant changes to Soviet military and intelligence postures in the wake of "Able Archer '83." That 10-day NATO exercise in November of 1983 is suspected of unintentionally and quietly pushing America and the Soviet Union closer to war. And now, there's new evidence suggesting those suspicions were right on.

Released last week by FOIA's de-facto court of appeals, the 109-page report (read it below), prepared in 1990, offers a searing indictment of the American intelligence community. And its publication, long anticipated by Cold War historians, may open old wounds.

For the past few years, I've been working on a book about Able Archer for Simon and Schuster. My basic question: Was whatever happened during that exercise real enough to deserve the term "war scare"? Did the U.S. and the Soviet Union move closer to the brink without realizing it?

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board report is as official an answer as we can get from the U.S. government : Yes. The Able Archer war scare was real.

Able Archer '83 — a very realistic military exercise that spanned much of Western Europe — was held just weeks before the planned deployment of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to Europe, and two months after a jittery Soviet air defense force shot down a civilian airliner. Some degree of heightened Kremlin anxiety to Western war rehearsals was expected — and, in the minds of the planners of these war games, unavoidable.

As it turns out, the anxiety level was considerably higher than almost anyone believed was possible. For more than a decade, historians and reporters have debated one major question: Did the Soviets sincerely believe that the U.S. would use a military exercise like Able Archer as cover to launch some sort of first strike on the Soviet Union? Or, was the heightened anxiety part of an elaborate deception to gain concessions when (and if) arms control talks resumed?

The vast intelligence-gathering sensors of the Soviet Union had turned up to indications that the West was planning a nuclear attack. Because the nexus of world events had shifted against the Soviet Union, President Reagan would find a way to exploit their vulnerabilities and undertake some sort of grand empirical adventure — maybe an invasion to save Poland, or even a surgical decapitation attack against the Soviet leadership itself.

Robert Gates, who was deputy director for intelligence at the CIA at the time, told me earlier this year that he regards the downgrading of Soviet war fears as a major intelligence failure. (He has elaborated on this subject in a book). Several Reagan administration officials, including Bud McFarlane, the president's national security adviser at the time, contend that President Reagan's response upon learning that there was even a possibility that the Soviet leadership was that paranoid helped convince him to pursue diplomacy more aggressively, and saber-rattling, less so. But the author of early CIA reports, Fritz Ermarth, contends that hindsight bias makes it easy to second-guess the CIA, and insists that it far overstates the case to say that the world moved closer to actual conflict.

But according to the declassified PFIAB report, there was a consistent body of evidence suggesting this fear was widespread, and that the unusual nature of Able Archer magnified it.

  • The Soviet military put itself on alert status during Able Archer, and ended it as Able Archer ended; the intelligence community missed this at the time.
  • Air defense brigades in Warsaw Pact countries were placed on alert; the CIA dismissed this at the time as standard counter-exercising.
  • Nuclear weapons were transported from storage units to their forward deployed positions.
  • The Soviets conducted a significantly larger number of reconnaissance flights over NATO territory during Able Archer than during any other similarly measured time period.
  • The Soviets increased their readiness and alert levels force-wide. (This ended as Able Archer ended, too).
  • Air traffic in the Soviet Union was suspended during the exercise too.

The PFIAB report gives weight to the reports of Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB agent who spied for Britain, and who reported in early 1984 on Soviet fears about the war scare.

Nate Jones of the National Security Archive at George Washington University has written at length about Able Archer, and his primers are worth reading for the full background. Jones also superintended the process to push the document through a mandatory declassification review.

But the upshot of these recently declassified documents is clear: There was a major nuclear war scare in 1983. And American intelligence officials missed it.

President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board report on Able Archer '83

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us