1983: The Most Dangerous Year of the Cold War

The History News Network reports:

By David Austin Walsh, editor of the History News Network.

Just how close did the world come to full-blown nuclear war in the 1980s?

Frighteningly close.

That’s the conclusion of researchers at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which released on May 16 a collection of documents on the 1983 Able Archer war scare, the closest the Cold War came to turning hot since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Many of the documents come from Soviet archives, and are summarized in English; others came from the U.S. government after Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests

The release is the first in a series of three postings; the second will consist of U.S. military documents, the third documents from the U.S. intelligence community. (The National Security Agency, the website notes, refused to release its relevant documents after a 2008 FOIA request, but “did review, approve for release, stamp, and send a printout of a Wikipedia article.”)

Able Archer was the name of November 1983 NATO exercise that simulated a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The Soviets feared that this was the prelude to an actual U.S. first strike, and prepared to preempt it.

“Things were really tense,” Nate Jones, the editor of the collection and FOIA coordinator for the Archive, said in a phone interview. “There were the boycotts of the Olympics [in 1980 and 1984], the Soviet war in Afghanistan was ongoing, the [Korean Air Lines] shootdown was huge… [and] Soviet leaders were surprised by how aggressive and confrontational [Ronald] Reagan’s foreign policy was. They liked working with Nixon, who, though he was a conservative, was straight-up and easy to do business with.”

President Reagan openly wondered to his advisors whether or not the “Soviet leaders really fear us, or is all the huffing and puffing just part of their propaganda?”

A 1996 CIA report on the 1983 war scare concluded that the Soviets genuinely feared a pre-emptive nuclear strike from the United States. General Secretary Yuri Andropov “repeatedly compared” Reagan to Hitler, the architect of a devastating surprise attack on the Soviet Union that it barely survived, and told his Politburo colleagues that he was “fanning the flames of war,” an image, the report’s author notes dryly, “more sinister than Andropov as a Red Darth Vader.”

The Soviets were also concerned about the broader course of the Cold War – a 1981 KGB report concluded that the “USSR was in effect losing – and the US was winning – the Cold War.”

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