How the world reached the brink of nuclear war not once but twice in 1983

Nick Blackbourn, Edinburgh Napier University

In the autumn of 1983, at the height of Cold War tensions, the world was only saved from nuclear disaster by the gut feelings of two soldiers during different incidents.

In the first incident, on September 26, a Soviet lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov saw that according to the early-warning system, the Americans had launched numerous missiles against the Russians. He suspected an error and ignored the warnings. His decision to breach protocol and not inform his superiors averted a panicked retaliation.

Lt Gen Leonard Perroots. wikimedia

The second incident is less well known. An American lieutenant general, Leonard Perroots, also chose to ignore warnings – this time that the Soviet Union had gone on high nuclear alert. Like Petrov, he did nothing, and once again may have prevented an accidental nuclear war.

This was the “Able Archer War Scare”, which occurred over ten days in the November of the same year. Recently declassified documents inform Able Archer 83, a new book by the Cold War historian Nate Jones which shows just how close the world came to disaster.

Two tribes

Superpower mutual suspicion was rife in the early 1980s. President Reagan’s notorious “Evil Empire” speech, combined with imminent plans to deploy the Pershing II missile system in Europe, which could destroy Moscow with 15 minutes warning, had made the Kremlin especially paranoid. Was the US preparing a first strike to win the Cold War? The USSR’s ageing and sickly premier, Yuri Andropov, certainly thought Reagan would have no qualms about it. “Reagan is unpredictable. You should expect anything from him,” he told Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassdor to the US, at the time.

Another reason the leadership feared a US first strike was Project RYaN, an intricate Soviet intelligence-gathering effort designed to detect preparations for a surprise nuclear attack. It was being kept busy by US aircraft testing Soviet air defence systems by flying towards USSR airspace as part of the PSYOPs (psychological military operations) programme.

The aircraft would deliberately provoke an alert and monitor the Soviet command and control responses, while demonstrating American strength and resolve at the same time. It was an example of the “Peace Through Strength” policy that was seen as vital by Reaganites to help the US emerge from its own perceived era of military weakness under President Carter.

But this US chest-beating led to a resurgence of intense mutual mistrust, with tragic consequences. On September 1 1983, Korean Air Lines flight 007 was shot down by a Russian fighter, killing all 269 passengers and crew. The Kremlin claimed the jet was an American spy plane deep in Russian territory.

Cleared for take-off: flight 007. Wikimedia

In this climate of extreme tension, NATO’s “Autumn Forge” war game season kicked off. NATO war games had been an annual occurrence, but the Soviets feared this particular edition might be cover for a surprise attack.

The final phase of the 1983 series, codenamed Able Archer 83, was different from previous years: dummy nuclear weapons, which looked like the real thing, were loaded on to planes. As many as 19,000 American troops were part of a radio-silent airlift to Europe over 170 flights. Military radio networks broadcast references to “nuclear strikes”.

This sent Project RYaN into overdrive and the Soviets went on high nuclear alert. Warsaw Pact non-essential military flights were cancelled; nuclear-capable aircraft were placed on alert; nuclear weapons were taken to their launch vehicles; and Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Ogarkov descended into a command bunker outside Moscow to coordinate a possible response to a NATO strike.

Fresh light: new book.

There is a debate about the Kremlin’s intentions here. Were they genuinely afraid of an attack or simply trying to turn world opinion against the US to prevent Pershing II deployment? At the time, Reagan wondered if the Soviet panic was just “huffing and puffing”. In Able Archer 83, Nate Jones presents new documentary evidence to suggest the Kremlin’s fear was indeed genuine. It was only the decision by Lieutenant General Perroots, sitting in the Able Archer command post, not to respond to this extraordinary alert that avoided further escalation.

The book demonstrates how American leaders failed to appreciate the alarm that their actions might prompt in the Kremlin. In addition, Jones supplies fresh evidence for the argument that Reagan changed his mind on Soviet relations. By his second term, having been influenced by Able Archer and the other events of 1983, he chose to pursue peace far more vigorously than strength.

Why Able Archer matters

Intentions are as important as capabilities, and the Soviet leadership misread American intentions in the early 1980s. Agents informing Project RYaN reported “facts” without context or interpretation. KGB analysts in Moscow were actively looking to confirm a hypothesis, not to explore the situation rationally.

Likewise, American leaders misread Soviet perceptions. Even with Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric and 1983’s unusually realistic war game scenario, the American intelligence community could not conceive that the USSR took the threat of a first strike seriously.

The way that the events of 1983 influenced Reagan’s approach towards the Russians is as important as the economic pressure of Reagan’s Star Wars defence programme when it comes to explaining why the Cold War ended. As Reagan later wrote in his memoirs, he had come to recognise that “Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike”.

Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev discussing detente at the Rekyavik Summit in 1986. Wikimedia

Too often, intelligence agencies collect data and fit it into whichever threat hypothesis is in vogue. We should learn from Reagan’s 1983 insight and not wait for the brink of war: in the nuclear age, whatever an adversary’s political goals, we cannot afford to downplay their genuine fears about military posturing.

We have never yet returned to the awful global tensions of 1983, but the rivalries between the world’s three leading powers remain real enough. We need to ensure that we are never again left relying on the gut feelings of one or two soldiers to avoid stumbling into disaster.

The Conversation

Nick Blackbourn, Research Content Officer, Edinburgh Napier University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Review of True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy

true-believer-book-cover

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What is the book about?

Noel Field was an unrepentant Stalinist who betrayed his country, exacted a terrible cost on his family for doing so, and died living behind the iron curtain in Hungary. True Believer tells his story.

‘Noel Field began life with the best intentions … At the end, Noel Field was still a willing prisoner of an ideology that captured him when his youthful ardor ran highest. A man who set out to change the world ended up in a strange land.’ 1

How is it related to the Cold War?

noel-and-herta-field

Noel and Herta Field

True Believer shows how Field developed his Communist worldview, how he was recruited, his spying for the Soviet Union, and, painfully, his family’s suffering as he remained steadfastly committed to the cause, even after years in an Eastern jail.

The early part of the book is an account of Field’s upbringing in Switzerland and his spying in the US in the 1930s. It then turns to Field’s role in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, where he made connections between the OSS and Communist resistance fighters.

This connection between leading Communists and Field would be exploited by Stalin in the 1950s. Field was arrested, tortured, and made to confess that he had recruited these Communist fighters for the West on behalf of Allen Dulles. In this way, Noel Field had an important role in the show trials of the 1950s as Stalin tightened his grip in Eastern Europe.

Yet Field’s conviction never wavered and he forgave his tormentors and remained in his Socialist Paradise with his wife, Herta, ever critical of the West throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Why should you read it?

Marton’s telling of Noel Field’s story demonstrates the cost of his naive idealism. Her focus isn’t just on the narrative of Field’s betrayal of his country but also the impact on Field’s family.

His brother – Hermann – and adopted daughter – Erica – bore the terrible cost of Field’s commitment to Stalin’s socialist state. Erica ventured across the Iron Curtain to look for her missing father, mother, and uncle – who had been kidnapped by the Hungarian Secret Police – and herself ended up in a Hungarian jail.

Erica’s husband and children spent the next 5 years and 2 months frantically trying to secure her release.

‘On Christmas Eve in 1954, the world was shocked by the announcement that a pair of newly freed political prisoners had requested “the protection” of the country that had jailed them on false charges.’ 2

The Hungarian authorities eventually agreed to release their prisoners – who no longer held much value to the socialist regime – as long as the Fields handed them a final propaganda coup: Noel and Herta were to claim political asylum in Hungary.

Hermann’s and Erica’s nightmare ended, but Noel continued to make life difficult for his family from behind the Iron Curtain.

Noel had hoped Erica would also choose to stay in the East. Instead, she attempted to return to her family in the US. Unhelpfully, Field continued his public support of the Soviet Union. In the era of McCarthyism, this made it difficult for Erica to secure a visa.

It was only 6 months after her release that Erica finally obtained the paperwork that permitted her to get on with her life.

Noel Field, Marton describes, was “remorseless in inflicting pain on his family” in pursuit of his chosen ideology.

Overall:

True Believer is a very readable account of an unrepentant Stalinist whose personal story reflects a naive and idealistic response to the tumultuous mid-twentieth century: Field chose Stalin’s vision of Communism as his guiding philosophy and stuck with it until the very end.

Noel Field died unrepentant in Hungary in 1970 and was buried as a Communist hero with full state honors.

If you’d like to understand how a man can endure weeks of torment at the hands of the Soviet security apparatus along with his wife, daughter, and brother, and then himself apologise to the Communist government upon his release, then you’ll be fascinated by the saga of Noel Field.

Buy True Believer Now:

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Here’s an interview with Kati Marton on WNYC radio:

‘Field Testing’ the book:

 

More Info:

Noel Field’s Wikipedia entry

Noel Field on Spartacus Educational

How an American Spy for Russia Wound Up in a Hungarian Jail

Footnotes:

  1. Marton, True Believer, p.249
  2. Marton, True Believer, p.191