About The Book

David M. Humpert

1983 was the most dangerous year in the U.S.-USSR Cold War confrontation since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Once elected, President Reagan declared a political and military campaign against the “evil empire,” although Soviet political leaders were looking to untie the Gordian knot that was hindering the Soviet Union’s economic development.

The U.S. intelligence community indicated that the Soviet Union was in an economic downward spiral marked by the quagmire in Afghanistan; the drain of funds supporting Third World revolutionary regimes; and the crushing cost of competing with the largest peacetime increases in the U.S. defense since the Second World War. The aging Soviet leaders believed that the “correlation of forces,” Soviet terminology for assessing the international balance of power, was sliding against Moscow and that Washington was in the hands of a dangerous anti-Soviet leadership determined to place the Soviet Union “on the ash heap of history.”

The Reagan administration authorized unusually aggressive and provocative military exercises near the Soviet border that, in some cases, violated Soviet territorial sovereignty. The Pentagon’s risky campaign included flying U.S. and NATO combat aircraft to probe the Russian border to test Soviet radars, and conducting naval exercises in wartime approaches to the USSR where U.S. warships had previously not entered. Secret operations simulated surprise naval attacks on actual Soviet targets.

One of the great similarities between Russia and the United States was that both sides feared surprise attack. Yet, the United States never appreciated that Moscow had similar fears due to Plan Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion in the same year as the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The Soviets suffered a far greater nightmare that claimed near 30 million military and civilian lives and this “Never Again!” memory was burned into their national conscience.

Russia’s fear of surprise attack was accentuated in 1983, when the United States was due to deploy the Pershing II and land-based cruise missiles in Western Europe as a counter to the Soviet Union’s SS-20 Pioneer missile. The SS-20 was not a “strategic” weapon because of its limited range (3,000 miles) well short of the United States. The Pershing II and cruise missiles, however, could not only reach the Soviet Union, but also could destroy Moscow’s command and control systems with pinpoint accuracy. Since the Soviets would have limited warning time—five to six minutes—the Pershings and cruise missiles were viewed as first-strike weapons that could destroy Moscow’s capability to retaliate.

Further, 1983 culminated in the annual Able Archer exercise that was a test of U.S. command and command procedures, including the release and use of nuclear weapons in case of war. And for the first time, the Able Archer exercise was scheduled to include President Reagan, Vice President Bush, and Secretary of Defense Weinberger. Ironically, Soviet military doctrine had long held that a possible U.S. surprise nuclear attack could use an exercise as a guise to mobilize its forces. Moreover, Russian military doctrine also contained provisions for a preemptive attack. Moscow would not be unprepared for another surprise attack as in 1941.

Now, decades later, history seems to be repeating itself. Relations once again between the two superpowers are at their nadir. Washington, NATO and Moscow are exchanging ugly broadsides over the “special military operation” in Ukraine and the disruption of international order. Russian-American arms control and disarmament dialogue pushed far to the background, and the possibilities of superpower conflict forewarned by pundits.

The lessons of 1983 appear to have been forgotten.