Nevertheless, by the early 1980s the chances of surviving a general nuclear exchange had dropped to zero. Moreover, the chances a regional nuclear conflict wouldn’t escalate to a general exchange were belied by Mr. VPK himself, Minister of Defense Dmitri Ustinov:
Could anyone in his right mind speak seriously of any limited nuclear war? It should be quite clear that the aggressor’s actions will instantly and inevitably trigger a devastating counterstroke by the other side. None but completely irresponsible people could maintain that a nuclear war may be made to follow rules adopted beforehand, with nuclear missiles exploding in a “gentlemanly manner” over strictly designated targets and sparing the population.
Nuclear war was truly unthinkable. Yet at the same time the Soviet Politburo became obsessed with the prospect that the Americans were primed to deliver a nuclear first-strike. On 13 July 1982 The New York Times reported another MoD Ustinov quotation:
The aggressor, too should know that the preemptive use of nuclear weapons would not insure victory. With modern detection systems and the combat readiness of the Soviet Union’s strategic nuclear forces, the United States would not be able to deal a crippling blow to the socialist countries. The aggressor will not be able to evade an all-crushing retaliatory strike.
Soviet intelligence services went on alert in 1981 to watch for US preparations for launching a surprise nuclear attack against the USSR and its allies. This alert was accompanied by a new Soviet intelligence collection program, known by the acronym RYAN, to monitor indications and provide early warning of US intentions. Two years later a major war scare erupted in the USSR.
Into this cauldron plunged Ronald Reagan, who out of the gate was happy to project to the Soviets that he was spoiling for a fight. Immediately after his 1981 inauguration the 40th president began doing everything to confirm the Politburo’s growing suspicions:
RYAN may have been a response to the first in a series of US psychological warfare operations (PSYOPs in military jargon) initiated in the early months of the Reagan administration.21 These operations consisted mainly of air and naval probes near Soviet borders. The activity was virtually invisible except to a small circle of White House and Pentagon officials–and, of course, to the Kremlin. “‘It was very sensitive,’ recalls former undersecretary of defense Fred Ikle. ‘Nothing was written down about it, so there would be no paper trail.'”22
The purpose of this program was not so much to signal US intentions to the Soviets as to keep them guessing what might come next. The program also probed for gaps and vulnerabilities in the USSR’s early warning intelligence system:
“Sometimes we would send bombers over the North Pole and their radars would click on,” recalls Gen. Jack Chain, [a] former Strategic Air Command commander. “Other times fighter-bombers would probe their Asian or European periphery.” During peak times, the operation would include several maneuvers in a week. They would come at irregular intervals to make the effect all the more unsettling. Then, as quickly as the unannounced flights began, they would stop, only to begin again a few weeks later.23
Another former US official with access to the PSYOP program offered this assessment:
“It really got to them,” recalls Dr. William Schneider, [former] undersecretary of state for military assistance and technology, who saw classified “after-action reports” that indicated U.S. flight activity. “They didn’t know what it all meant. A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace, and other radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then at the last minute the squadron would peel off and return home.”24
Let’s reiterate—the Soviet Politburo had come to believe the United States had invented a viable first-strike weapon (which it had, see below) and was terrified that the U.S. intended to us that capability (not an unreasonable fear), and the Reagan Administration thought throwing the Soviet leadership off balance was sound policy. Somehow, the Soviets remained unflappable for two years:
Despite their private concerns, Soviet leaders maintained a public posture of relative calm during 1981-82. Even President Reagan’s first Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, later gave Moscow credit for doing so. “The Soviets stayed very, very moderate, very, very responsible during the first three years of this administration. I was mind-boggled with their patience.”66 But that patience wore thin in 1983.
Patience wore thin? I’ll say. General Secretary Yuri Andropov completely cracked:
The overt phase of the war scare erupted barely a month into the second phase of RYAN. On 23 March 1983, President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), quickly dubbed “Star Wars” by the media. SDI was a plan for a ground- and space-based, laser-armed antiballistic missile system that, if deployed, would create a shield for US land-based missiles. Four days after the President’s announcement–and in direct response–Andropov lashed out. He accused the United States of preparing a first-strike attack on the Soviet Union and asserted that President Reagan was “inventing new plans on how to unleash a nuclear war in the best way, with the hope of winning it.”67
Andropov’s remarks were unprecedented.68 He violated a longstanding taboo by citing numbers and capabilities of US nuclear weapons in the mass media. He also referred to Soviet weapons with highly unusual specificity. And for the first time since 1953, the top Soviet leader was telling his nation that the world was on the verge of a nuclear holocaust. If candor is a sign of sincerity, then Moscow was worried.
The SDI announcement came out of the blue for the Kremlin–and for most of the Reagan Cabinet.69 Andropov’s advisers urged him not to overreact, but he ignored their advice, accusing President Reagan of “deliberately lying” about Soviet military power to justify SDI. He denounced the missile shield as a “bid to disarm the Soviet Union in the face of the US nuclear threat.” Space-based defense, he added:
would open the floodgates of a runaway race of all types of strategic arms, both offensive and defensive. Such is the real significance, the seamy side, so to say, of Washington’s “defensive conception.” …The Soviet Union will never be caught defenseless by any threat…. Engaging in this is not just irresponsible, it is insane…. Washington’s actions are putting the entire world in jeopardy.70
Then there was Able Archer:
Another notable incident in 1983 occurred during an annual NATO command post exercise codenamed ABLE ARCHER 83. The Soviets were familiar with this exercise from previous years, but the 1983 version included two important changes:
In the original scenario (which was later modified), the 1983 exercise was to involve high-level officials, including the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in major roles, with cameo appearances by the President and the Vice President. Such high-level participation would have meant greater publicity and visibility than was the case during past runnings of this exercise.
ABLE ARCHER 83 included a practice drill that took NATO forces through a full-scale simulated release of nuclear weapons.
Any chance someone in the U.S. military or Reagan Administration had considered how the Politburo might react to such an operation? No? Well, the Russians went nuts as one:
In the months following the September 1983 KAL incident [(where a Soviet PVO Strany SU-15 shot down Korean Air Flight 007 in Sakhalin Island airspace)], a full-scale war scare unfolded in the USSR. Soviet authorities clearly instigated this through a variety of agitprop activities. Even so, the scare took on a life of its own and threatened to get out of hand before the Kremlin took steps in early 1984 to calm public fears.98
Soviet attacks on President Reagan reached a fever pitch. Moscow compared him to Hitler and alleged that he had ties to the Mafia. The Soviet media hammered home that the danger of nuclear war was higher than at any time since World War II.
Radio Liberty interviews with Soviet citizens traveling abroad suggested that much of the Soviet public was genuinely alarmed[:]
We have been hearing a lot of rumors about the possibility of war in the near future. At political information meetings they are saying that the United States is getting ready to attack the Soviet Union, and that we should be prepared for an attack at any moment. From what I could see, those who believed these warnings significantly outnumbered those who didn’t. The simple people are very frightened of war.
Soviet citizen interviewed by
Radio Liberty (Munich)
The Americans were befuddled by the Soviet nuclear fears, Reagan writing in his memoirs “I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and Russians had nothing to fear from us.” If only the future Alzheimer’s patient could see the perspective of the Russians sitting beneath the nuclear sword of Damocles.
The Most Dangerous Year in History
Yes, I’m speaking of 1983. The CIA was and remains clueless as to what was occurring:
The post-detente “second Cold War” was essentially a war of words–strong and at times inflammatory words. In March 1983, President Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as the “focus of evil in the world” and as an “evil empire.”3 Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov responded by calling the US President insane and a liar.4 Then things got nasty.5
A war of words…that shot down a Korean Air B747, killing 269 passengers and crew, amongst them U.S. congressman Larry McDonald. Twenty-five days later, a ballistic missile early warning center outside Moscow detected five inbound ICBMs from the United States. Would the CIA like to know what set the CCCP so on edge? This:
The stakes were never low with the Pershing II. Yuri Andropov had reason to fear this weapon:
Andropov’s entire life history had prepared him to expect the worst in war and in peace. KGB and Soviet military analysts told him the Pershing II missile, once deployed to bases in West Germany, would enable the United States to deliver a decapitating nuclear strike on Moscow in six minutes. A Pershing II fired from Western Europe would not be seen by Soviet launch detection satellites, which were focused on the United States. Soviet ground-based radars would need at least a minute or two to detect and report a missile launch. This would not leave Soviet leaders with enough time to order a retaliatory strike. If Pershing II could kill Soviet leaders before they could get to their deep underground bunkers, or smash key communications nodes and thereby block or delay their launch orders, Soviet missiles and bombers would be sitting ducks. While waiting to hear from Moscow, the full weight of 10,000 U.S. strategic nuclear warheads delivered from U.S. submarines, intercontinental missiles, and bombers would vaporize the Strategic Rocket Forces, the Navy, and the Air Force. Pershing II would allow the United States to win a nuclear war—or so Andropov’s people told him. KGB analysts saw Pershing II as the Cuban missile crisis in reverse.
KGB chief Andropov found the surprise-attack scenario compelling. Along with Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, he became the leading exponent of the theory that the United States and Soviet Union had entered a phase of supreme crisis in relations. Andropov believed that NATO’s Pershing II decision had ushered in a new decade, one fraught with greater risks of a nuclear World War III. This is the message the KGB chief carried to other Soviet leaders. Not that they needed much convincing that another world war was imminent: they all shared the same violent national history, and all had lives very much like Andropov’s. An alarmist outlook seemed normal and prudent.
Andropov and the KGB recognized the Pershing II was a first-strike weapon and believed it would be employed in that capacity. Military historians might balk at that assertion, but there is no document that could vitiate the KGB’s assessment that the likelihood of a Pershing II strike being detected by Soviet early-warning systems prior to impact on the Kremlin was practically non-existent. Whether the Pentagon recognized it or not, Martin-Marietta had developed a first-strike-capable weapon system with the Pershing II.
The KGB can be forgiven for reporting to its masters the Pershing II was a preemptive-strike weapon; the II seems to have been designed with the ability to rapidly kill the members of the Soviet Politburo in mind. The Pershing II was designed from the beginning (in 1973) as a nuclear bunker-buster. Martin’s new design employed the revolutionary MARV (Maneuverable Reentry Vehicle) to greatly improve accuracy. MARV required a smaller warhead to fit inside the 34.8 ft missile fuselage, which wasn’t an issue as the earlier Pershing variants’ W-50 400 kiloton warheads were vastly overpowered by 1970s standards (400 kt was larger than every operational American ICBM and SLBM warhead except for the 9 megaton W-53s mounted on the Titan II). A specialty earth penetration warhead, the W-86, was developed for the Pershing II until it was canceled 1980. The W-86 was set aside in favor of the W-85, an even smaller warhead that permitted the missile’s range to be increased. Did the design change have something to do with a desire to give the Pershing II the ability to strike Moscow?
To be fair to the office of the president of the United States, the decision to frighten the Politburo to death was made in Bonn by Helmut Schmidt:
The Soviet Union’s growing superiority in long-range theater nuclear missiles (LRTNF) relative to the NATO Alliance worried Western European political and military leaders, particularly West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Schmidt claimed that the combination of SS-20 deployments within striking distance of Western Europe and the advent of “strategic parity” in the early 1970s revealed the existence of a serious “gap,” or vulnerability, in NATO’s “flexible response” deterrence strategy.
The presence of a gap in NATO’s flexible response deterrence strategy meant that NATO lacked the capability to credibly respond to a Soviet SS-20 nuclear attack of Western Europe. Since NATO lacked long-range theater nuclear forces, Schmidt claimed that NATO would be unable to respond in kind to a Soviet SS-20 strike on NATO military sites with a corresponding NATO strike on Soviet military targets.  In turn, Schmidt feared that if the Soviets were to perceive that NATO lacked the capability to respond to Soviet SS-20 strikes on Western Europe, then the Soviets would no longer be deterred and would initiate a SS-20 attack. Concerned about the security of West Germany, Schmidt demanded that Carter and his advisors devise a strategy that would close the perceived gap in NATO’s deterrence strategy.
It should be noted the MGM-31 Pershing had two operators—the U.S. Army and the West German Air Force. All MGM-31 missiles deployed against the Warsaw Pact were emplaced in West Germany. That’s right—the West Germans were a nuclear power during the Cold War.
In August 1978, President Carter, with the strong backing of Brzezinski and Aaron, approved a plan that he hoped would assuage the Western European concern that NATO’s deterrence strategy had grown deficient in light of SS-20 deployments and strategic parity. The plan called for NATO to deploy a contingent of 572 long-range single-warhead nuclear Euromissiles into the territories of America’s NATO allies by the end of 1983. On December 12, 1979, the NATO Alliance, with President Carter’s strong backing, approved the plan to deploy 108 Pershing II-XR ballistic and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles in the United Kingdom, West Germany, and Italy. In addition to approving a Euromissile deployment plan, NATO Ministers extended an offer to commence arms control talks with the Soviets focused specifically on reducing NATO and Soviet theater nuclear forces. The combined NATO Euromissile deployment plan and TNF arms control offer is known as NATO’s 1979 “double-track decision.”
They should have called it the “Countdown to Armageddon decision.” Double-track made 1983 the most dangerous year in human history; the year every human being on Earth would have perished if not for the cool head of one Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov:
His job was to register any missile strikes and to report them to the Soviet military and political leadership. In the political climate of 1983, a retaliatory strike would have been almost certain.
And yet, when the moment came, he says he almost froze in place.
“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” he says.
The system was telling him that the level of reliability of that alert was “highest”. There could be no doubt. America had launched a missile.
“A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’,” he says.
Mr Petrov smokes cheap Russian cigarettes as he relates the incidents he must have played over countless times in his mind.
“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike. But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time; that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay.
“All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders – but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan,” he told us.
Although the nature of the alert seemed to be abundantly clear, Mr Petrov had some doubts.
Alongside IT specialists, like him, Soviet Union had other experts, also watching America’s missile forces. A group of satellite radar operators told him they had registered no missiles.
But those people were only a support service. The protocol said, very clearly, that the decision had to be based on computer readouts. And that decision rested with him, the duty officer.
But what made him suspicious was just how strong and clear that alert was.
“There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those ‘checkpoints’. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances,” says the retired officer.
Mr Petrov called the duty officer in the Soviet army’s headquarters and reported a system malfunction.
If he was wrong, the first nuclear explosions would have happened minutes later.
“Twenty-three minutes later I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief,” he says with a smile.
…and yes, the responsibility for this near-cataclysm rests solely on the shoulders of the 40th president. Reagan apologists (who should thank their lucky stars and Lt. Col. Petrov) might point to Yuri Andropov coming to these conclusions in 1979 as another sign of how wretched the Carter Administration was, but in 1983 Reagan elected to replace all 108 of the U.S. Army’s Pershing IAs with Pershing IIs in West Germany and had pushed up the deployment of 464 BGM-109G GLCM ground-launched nuclear cruise missiles to USAF stations throughout Western Europe:
On July 1, 1982, USAF’s 501st Tactical Missile Wing was activated at RAF Greenham Common in Great Britain. That step–taken 20 years ago this month–marked the start of what would prove to be a major political upheaval in Europe. Noisy protesters came early for the arrival of the wing’s first batch of Ground Launched Cruise Missiles. However, US troops brought them in late at night, as the protesters slept.
Flash forward 18 months, to Dec. 12, 1983. Greenham Common on that day was besieged by thousands of women anti-nuclear activists. They were chanting, singing, and blowing trumpets in protest of the presence of the nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. These anti-nuclear zealots even briefly penetrated a perimeter fence protecting the base against intruders.
A makeshift “peace camp” had been established outside the main gate. Resident activists vowed to live there indefinitely in an attempt to force NATO to abandon its planned deployment of several hundred BGM-109G GLCM (pronounced “glick-em”) weapons and the US Army’s nuclear-tipped Pershing II ballistic missiles.
The burgeoning Western anti-nuclear movement did not regard these new weapons as a much-needed counter to the Soviet Union’s SS-20 intermediate-range missiles. For the protesters, they were a terrifying sign of the Western alliance’s determination to be able to fight and win a nuclear war, if necessary. In short they were, by definition, bad.
“They don’t add to our security, but [they] increase our insecurity,” asserted Bruce Kent, who was at the time the head of Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Peter Grier clearly thinks anti-nuclear protesters were fooling themselves. He’s entitled to his own opinion, but the facts are with Bruce Kent.