Cold War's riskiest moment


Some think the fall of 1983 was the closest the Soviets and the U.S. came to nuclear war


Twenty years ago this fall, as the Orioles triumphed in the World Series, baby boomers flocked to The Big Chill and radios played Michael Jackson's Thriller, the superpowers drifted obliviously to the brink of nuclear war.

That is the disturbing conclusion of a number of historians who have studied the bellicose rhetoric and mutual incomprehension of the United States and the Soviet Union, which then had more than 20,000 nuclear warheads between them. With the possible exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, they say, the autumn of 1983 might have been the most dangerous moment in the history of the Cold War.

Ailing Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov, urged on by Soviet hard-liners and acutely aware that his country was losing the military technology race, had become increasingly worried that the Americans might be planning a nuclear first strike. President Ronald Reagan's rhetoric about the "evil empire" and U.S. military exercises poured fuel on Soviet war paranoia.

A series of mishaps and misunderstandings made conceivable a catastrophe that would have dwarfed today's worst fears of terrorists wielding weapons of mass destruction. That it did not happen is in part thanks to a KGB turncoat who alerted the West to Soviet fears and a Russian duty officer who did not panic when an archaic satellite reported that U.S. missiles were on the way.

"In retrospect, it was a pretty terrifying time," says Benjamin B. Fischer, a 30-year CIA veteran who now works on the agency's historical staff. "We're lucky it ended the way it did."

Fischer, who has published a seminal paper on the period through the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence, says the danger resulted when wildly exaggerated fears of a U.S. surprise attack took hold in "the geriatric ward" of the aging Soviet leadership. But a contributing factor was the reluctance of Reagan and his advisers to believe that Russian fears were genuine, he says.

"We don't do Pearl Harbors. So we couldn't believe they really thought we were capable of a first strike," Fischer says.

John Prados, a Cold War historian and senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, calls the fall of 1983 "a moment of high danger, in some respects more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both sides were more heavily armed. Both sides were more hostile."

Yet, by comparison with the Cuban crisis, what historians call the "Soviet war scare" of 1983 remains little known.

"The Cuban Missile Crisis evolved in a very public manner," Prados says. "In 1983, the whole thing happened in secret."

Behind the tensions of 1983 was a program devised in 1981 by then-KGB chief Andropov called Operation RYAN, not a code name but a stark Russian acronym for "nuclear missile attack." Secret orders were issued to KGB officers around the world to look for signs, however subtle, that the United States might be preparing a pre-emptive strike.

KGB officer Oleg A. Gordievsky, who as a British agent later played a key role in the drama, watched RYAN unfold from KGB headquarters in Moscow and then as an intelligence officer posted to London. He saw a gulf between the views of worldly Soviet intelligence officers in the field and the paranoia of Kremlin leaders.

"I never met anyone in the KGB who believed in the possibility of a first nuclear strike by the U.S.," Gordievsky says in an interview from his home in England. "Yet they all reported on the signs of such an attack because they were ordered to do it. They were afraid to say what they really thought."

By 1983, Soviet fears were growing, heightened by the imaginary evidence of a planned surprise attack reported by the Kremlin's cowed spies and by tough talk from Reagan.

In March, Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a futuristic missile-defense scheme many American scientists thought technically implausible. Soviet military leaders took the plan far more seriously, worrying that it might eventually make the Soviet nuclear arsenal useless.

That month, Reagan famously stepped up his anti-Soviet rhetoric. Speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, he urged the Christian group in considering nuclear freeze proposals not to "label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil."

Meanwhile, NATO plans to deploy Pershing II nuclear missiles in West Germany were seen by the Soviet Union as shortening to a few minutes the warning they might have of a strike. From Moscow, the Pershing deployment created fears like those that shook Washington when U.S. spy planes discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba.

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