Review of 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, by Taylor Downing

26 Jul

Like many kids growing up in the 1980s, I was very aware at a young age of the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to be mortal enemies. Even though in hindsight I knew little of the root cause of the international rivalry and all the political differences that fueled it, I knew enough to appreciate the fact that the specter of nuclear war loomed as a very real prospect. Nuclear arsenals and their capabilities were discussed constantly in the news, and the cataclysmic results of any potential nuclear war were things I can remember being discussed in the classroom. Perhaps my strongest memories about a possible world-ending war are associated less with real news, however, than with television series such as “The Day After” and others which graphically depicted what a nuclear holocaust might look like and spurred classroom talk. The thought that missiles launched from Russia could reach the U.S. in less than ten minutes was terrifying. Owing to those childhood memories, I am sure, I have had a fascination with the Cold War throughout my adult life. I have enjoyed several video documentaries on the subject in the past few years, but had not gotten an opportunity to do much reading on the subject until late. Recently I got a chance to listen to an audiobook version of one of the leading chronicles of the era, Taylor Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink.

Historian and broadcaster Taylor Downing is the producer of more than 200 television documentaries and author of several well-known books. Included among his published works are 1942: Britain at the Brink; Night Raid: The True Story of the First Victorious British Para Raid of WWII; Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War; Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme, and Churchill’s War Lab: Code Breakers, Boffins and Innovators: the Mavericks Churchill Led to Victory. In 1983, Downing attempts to chronicle what he argues may just have been the most perilous moments of the entire decades-long Cold War. That year marked a low point in international relations between two countries which had combined more than 18,000 nuclear warheads aimed at each other.

Downing’s central thesis is that 1983 was a very dangerous year in American-Soviet relations, even more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s. U.S. President Ronald Reagan had purposefully brought simmering tensions between the two superpowers to a full boil by encouraging a massive increase in defense spending, which effectively forced the Soviets to respond in kind. His support of the famed “Star Wars” initiative, which aimed to create a sort of technological shield which would prevent missiles fired at the United States from ever reaching the country, only increased tensions. The Soviets would have a hard time keeping up with the massive American spending, and Reagan knew it. Plus, he went around proclaiming the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire,” a provocative accusation meant to help win a global public relations war by forcing the Soviets into a defensive posture.

The aging Soviet leadership was at a loss to respond to Reagan’s financial and propaganda offensive, and became more suspicious and defensive about a possible U.S. attack than ever. They invested untold amounts of money in a global spy network which incentivized the discovery of any information proving the assumption, resulting in an intelligence service which effectively worked to tell its directors less about what was really going on than what they thought they wanted to hear. Hence a paranoid Soviet military shot down a Korean airliner carrying some 269 civilians after it drifted off course into Soviet airspace in September of 1983. In November the Soviets’ early warning system, a series of satellites designed to detect the launch of a U.S. missile, gave a false notice that an attack was underway when reflections of the morning sun on high-altitude clouds high above the American Midwest seemed to alert military officials that America had launched missiles. It took the calm response of a Soviet missile defense system leader to avert nuclear war. His hesitation to respond truly averted a global conflict, but it cost him his career. Later in November 1983 would come the closest call of all, though.

The crisis came in the form of a military exercise administered by NATO officials from the organization’s headquarters in Belgium. Code named “Able Archer,” it was purely an exercise designed to test communications capacities in the event of an actual war with the Soviet Union, but was conducted in real time and on existing radio frequencies and other lines of communication. Participants literally operated for several days from bunkers to make the experience as real as possible, and at times communicated in secret codes. The plan called for a scenario in which NATO forces were losing a conventional war and had to resort to nuclear weapons to prevent a takeover of much of Europe. The United States clearly would have to enter the growing conflict at some point in the exercise. The faulty Soviet espionage network picked up on the transmissions, and although there was clearly no war going on, somehow came to believe the entire thing was a big trick that would result in an actual attack. They also noted that President Reagan had left for a diplomatic trip to Japan as the operation began, and conflated that with a plan to take the president out of a potential war zone. In response to the perceived threat, the Soviet nuclear system went into high alert and top officials seriously considered a preemptive strike to protect themselves against what they had mistakenly come to view as an actual threat. Thankfully the week-long exercise ended before any actual military action was taken. Few people at the time realized just close to a nuclear attack Europe had been.

Downing’s book will do little to give readers peace about the fragility of international relations in the nuclear age. He reveals how a series of misunderstandings, intelligence failures, and faulty technology could have triggered a nuclear Armageddon on multiple occasions in the 1980s, just as all of us who grew up in the era feared. While we would like to think that perhaps such things could not happen today, the recent actions of a reckless Russian dictator who is fond of tossing out threats of nuclear warfare today reveal we still live with the reality. The book is a timely and intriguing account of a defining era in American foreign diplomacy and highly recommended.



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