Apocalypse Averted: The Brink’s Tale of Near-Nuclear War

The world might have come close to ending in the early 1980s. Tensions had been rising between the United States and the Soviet Union for years, and Soviet leaders were convinced that their American counterparts were planning to launch a nuclear war. The Soviets became hypersensitive to possible warning signs of an impending American or NATO attack and responded with heightened military preparations of their own. An annual NATO military exercise known as “Able Archer,” meant to rehearse procedures for using nuclear weapons, caused special alarm among the Soviets in the fall of 1983. In such circumstances, a minor US-Soviet confrontation, a false alarm, or some other moment of bad luck could have led to World War III.

This extraordinarily dangerous episode—and how both sides ultimately de-escalated tensions and avoided war—is the subject of Marc Ambinder’s The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018). Ambinder, a journalist and professor at the University of California’s Annenberg School, focuses on a period of less than 10 years during the Cold War. He begins with the dramatic cooling of US-Soviet relations in the late 1970s and ends in 1985, when US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time and began a new, more cooperative phase in their countries’ relationship.

The friendlier US-Soviet relationship of the 1970s ended partly because of the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and decision to deploy a new class of intermediate-range nuclear missiles, known as the SS-20s. The SS-20s could hit targets in Europe, so the United States countered with plans to deploy its own intermediate-range weapons to Europe. These American plans only provoked the Soviets further, as did the election in 1980 of arch-Cold Warrior Reagan. Shortly after Reagan became president, the KGB began a special intelligence-gathering project known as “RYAN”—an acronym for the Russian phrase “nuclear missile attack.” Soviet intelligence would watch the United States and NATO carefully for warning signs of such an attack.

The international situation did not improve in subsequent years, and by the 1983 Able Archer exercise they had reached fever pitch. Shortly before the exercise’s start, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov warned Soviet allies of “the grave escalation of the international situation and, in consequence, of the growing danger of war.”[1] Soviet and allied forces, including nuclear forces, went on alert. Many SS-20 missiles were ready to be launched in less than 3 minutes, if necessary. As SS-20 commander Ivan Yesin recalled, he and his superiors feared “under the pretenses of those [Able Archer] exercises that a sudden nuclear strike could be delivered.”[2]   

The NATO exercise ended without a conflagration, but western intelligence agencies had noticed unusual Soviet behavior that fall: Soviet and allied planes and air defense radar on alert, increased intelligence-gathering flights by Soviet planes, and other signs of military readiness. An especially valuable source of information on Soviet activities was Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB agent in London who was secretly working for British intelligence. When a major US military exercise early in 1984 prompted a massive Soviet military exercise, that provided more evidence of Soviet fears.

In 1984, the awareness that the Soviet Union feared imminent war finally reached Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Both took steps to ease tensions. Reagan decided, over the objections of Caspar Weinberger, his hawkish secretary of defense, to meet Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Thatcher met with Gorbachev, who was soon to become the Soviet Union’s top leader. Reagan met with Gorbachev the following year and the risk of war receded. As Jack Matlock, a close advisor to Reagan, described this change, “the world breathed a sigh of relief.”[3]

The Brink has definite strengths. It is full of information about the political, military, and intelligence activities of both sides during this important period. The narrative moves quickly; Ambinder keeps his chapters short and writes straightforward, non-academic prose. Nevertheless, the book is full of so many people, agencies, and military plans and operations that keeping everything straight is difficult. (Even a glossary in the book’s front matter cannot cover all the terminology and acronyms used.)

Moreover, the book contains a number of basic factual errors: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, is misidentified as Carter’s secretary of state; Reagan’s speech to the British parliament is described as being in Westminster Abbey when it should be the Palace of Westminster; a group of Soviet Pentecostal Christians who took asylum in the US Embassy in Moscow are erroneously referred to as “American Pentecostal Christians,” and so on. Also, the book has numerous typos, which is particularly annoying.

Flaws aside, The Brink offers valuable insights into international relations and the challenges of making peace. The central theme is how nations can dramatically misread the intentions behind each other’s actions. The Soviet Union misread American actions as preparations for imminent war, while the United States almost missed this fear of war that lay behind Soviet actions. Even while certain intelligence sources sounded the alarm about international tensions, a CIA assessment of the time dismissed the notion that Soviet leaders seriously feared “imminent conflict or confrontation with the United States.”[4]

Absent an understanding of Soviet actions as motivated by fear, the heightened Soviet military readiness of the early 1980s could easily have been interpreted as a sign of aggressiveness. The United States might even have concluded that the Soviets were the ones preparing to launch imminent war. Mutual distrust and suspicion between the superpowers could simply have deepened, leading to global catastrophe.  

Preventing such a catastrophe required western political leaders who were willing to consider the perspectives of their Soviet adversaries and how those adversaries might interpret American and NATO actions. In a word, they needed to have empathy. They also needed to be open to alternative explanations of the information they received from intelligence sources. Last, they needed to want peace and to be willing to work for peace, even when risky. Whatever their other flaws and limitations, Reagan, Thatcher, and (once he came to power) Gorbachev did show these qualities during this crucial period.

Over 30 years have passed since the nuclear crisis of 1983-1984, but the great power tensions and the nuclear danger have not gone away. Relations between the United States and Russia have returned to something like Cold War-levels of hostility. One of Reagan and Gorbachev’s greatest achievements, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty—which abolished weapons such as the SS-20s and their American counterparts—is now collapsing: President Trump has threatened to withdraw the United States from the treaty.[5] Meanwhile, conflict looms between the United States and other nations, such as North Korea, China, and Iran. Political leadership that displays empathy, open-mindedness, and a willingness to seek peace is sorely needed. The lessons from The Brink remain relevant today.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.  


[1] Marc Ambinder, The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018), 196.

[2] Ibid., 203.

[3] Ibid., 279.

[4] Ibid, 248.

[5] Zeke Miller and Michael Balsamo, “Trump Says US Will Pull Out of Intermediate Range Nuke Pact,” Associated Press, October 20, 2018, https://bit.ly/2QFuerf.

© 2018 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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