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The Mythical War Scare of 1983

The war began in Yemen. Soviet proxies and their American-backed foes gradually dragged their superpower patrons into direct hostilities. So too did similar groups doing battle in Syria and Iran. As 1983 progressed, Moscow looked to consolidate its gains: Yugoslavia, Finland, and Norway all fell as the Kremlin went on the offensive. On Nov. 4, 1983, under the cover of a haze of chemical weapons, the Soviet Army crossed the Fulda Gap, pushing into West Germany. Outnumbered, NATO leadership fell back on the nuclear option: strikes on Warsaw Pact capital cities intended to dissuade the invaders from the east. When these did not halt the Pact’s advance, a salvo of intermediate-range nuclear weapons was the beginning of the West’s devastating counterattack.

Or so the script went. But did the scenario for NATO’s Able Archer 83 command-post exercise nearly become dangerously real? Did the world really come to the brink of nuclear war?

In the wake of the release of the latest volume in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, Able Archer is in the news again. In the Washington Post, Nate Jones and David Hoffman declare that “the war scare was real.” Fred Kaplan, in Slatewrites that “Soviet leaders thought that the war game was real … and top Soviet military commanders took steps to retaliate.” And in Defense One, Steve Blank warns that “the world’s superpowers drew near to accidental nuclear war” because of computer models. The National Security Archive, a longtime proponent of the view that Able Archer nearly triggered a nuclear war, similarly highlights “the danger of Able Archer.” In Esquire, Charles Pierce simply concludes that “one day in 1983 we nearly blew the hell out of the planet.” These are serious, dramatic claims — we were “thirty minutes from nuclear war,” exclaims the tabloid Daily Mail — but there is more to this story than meets the eye, if one looks at all of the new information in the State Department release.

Elizabeth Charles of the Department of State’s Office of the Historian has put together an invaluable collection of new materials on superpower relations at the beginning of the 1980s, including two meticulous editorial notes on Able Archer. Those who present Able Archer as a near miss with nuclear war zero in on a passage in a 1989 memorandum by Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, assistant chief of staff for intelligence at U.S. Air Forces Europe during the 1983 exercise. In the opinion of Perroots’ analytical team, some Soviet aircraft in East Germany and Poland went on alert with a self-protection electronic jamming pod mounted. Some have read this passage in the document to mean that these aircraft were loaded for nuclear war. This incomplete information is not proof that live nuclear weapons, ready for use, were loaded onto these aircraft, spooled up on the flight line at high readiness. Nor is a heightened alert opposite a major NATO exercise proof of a brush with Armageddon. As a U.S. special national intelligence estimate produced in the spring of 1984 stresses, bringing just this small subset of Soviet forces to a heightened alert makes little sense if Moscow were contemplating the prospect of nuclear war: “by confining heightened readiness to selected air units Moscow clearly revealed that it did not in fact think there was a possibility of a NATO attack.” As that report’s author, Fritz Ermarth, then the national intelligence officer for the Soviet Union and East Europe, later put it, the United States could “judge confidently the difference between when [the Warsaw Pact] might be brewing up for a real military confrontation or … just rattling their pots and pans.” Soviet activities were not, Ermarth and the intelligence community concluded “real military preparations.”

Read entire article at War on the Rocks