Key point: Misperceptions and paranoia nearly caused Moscow to think it was about to come under surprise attack.
On the night of November 20, 1983, Armageddon went prime time. Over 100 million Americans tuned in to the ABC television network to watch the two-hour drama The Day After. This depiction of a hypothetical nuclear attack on the United States attracted a great deal of publicity and controversy. Schools made watching the film a homework assignment, discussion groups were organized in communities across the country, and even the secretary of state at the time, George Schulz, took part in a question-and-answer session hosted by ABC after the film’s broadcast. That a mere made-for-TV movie could garner such attention from a leading figure in the Reagan administration indicates how real the fear of a nuclear apocalypse was at the time. But almost no one watching that Sunday night realized just how close fiction came to reality in the fall of 1983.
The possibility of the world’s two greatest military powers destroying each other and the earth in a full-scale thermonuclear war was a fear shared by many throughout the world. At the time, both the United States and the USSR maintained huge nuclear arsenals of over 20,000 nuclear warheads each. In North America and Western Europe, nuclear freeze movements were gaining new members daily, with mass demonstrations that routinely numbered in the tens of thousands.
World events seemed to only reaffirm people’s fears. It was the third year of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a man who had built his political career on a virulent hatred for all things communist. His 1980 victory over incumbent President Jimmy Carter had largely been the result of his hard-line stance against the Russians. A former film actor with a natural flair for the dramatic, Reagan both inspired and shocked people with his hardcore rhetoric, such as his statement before the British House of Commons in 1982 that the Marxist ideology would be relegated to the “ash heap of history.” Perhaps his most memorable and antagonistic remarks came on March 8, 1983, when Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the “focus of evil in the modern world” and an “evil empire.”
The actions of the Reagan administration in its first three years backed up his uncompromising rhetoric. To match the USSR’s huge expenditures on its armed forces, Reagan and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger initiated one of the largest peacetime military buildups in American history. Weapons programs such as the M1 Abrams tank, Trident nuclear submarine, and Stealth bomber were accelerated, while previously cancelled programs such as the B1 Lancer strategic bomber and the MX Missile were resurrected. To achieve the goal of creating a 600-ship navy, the Defense Department brought all four of its mammoth World War II-era Iowa-class battleships out of mothballs and returned them to active duty.
“Star Wars” and Fleetex 83: On the Brink of Nuclear War
On March 23, 1983, Reagan took the superpower rivalry to a new level when he unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative Program during a live television address. The SDI program, more popularly referred to as “Star Wars,” was to provide an orbital shield that would protect the United States—at least partly—from a nuclear strike. Reagan and supporters of the project argued that such a defense network, while not being able to completely block a full-scale strike from Russia, would at least cut down its effectiveness considerably and would be able to destroy smaller scale strikes, accidental nuclear launches, or missile attacks from rogue states. Reagan proposed to share the technology with the Soviets in a bid to eliminate the threat of nuclear war altogether.
To Yuri Andropov, then general secretary of the USSR, Reagan’s intentions spelled trouble. Andropov had dedicated his entire life to defending the Soviet Union, whether as a member of the partisans fighting behind German lines during World War II or as head of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. His supreme ambition to lead the nation had been realized with the death of Leonid Brezhnev in November 1982.
Andropov was scared to death of Ronald Reagan. He sincerely believed that Reagan meant what he said about the Soviet Union being an evil empire and seeing himself as a crusader who would not have any qualms in ordering the USSR’s destruction. During the summer and fall of 1983, events only served to add fuel to Andropov’s burning fears. In Western Europe, the United States prepared to deploy the latest generation of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM), the Pershing II. The Pershing missiles were a countermove to the Soviet deployment of the larger SS-20 IRBMs. But while the SS-20s could only reach targets in Western Europe, the Pershing IIs had the range to hit targets inside the USSR itself. It represented a new threat that the Soviets found intolerable.
In April and May of that year, as the rhetoric between Washington and Moscow escalated, the United States Navy conducted a series of fleet exercises in the Northwest Pacific known as FLEETEX 83. With more than 40 warships massed into three carrier battle groups, it was the largest concentration of American naval might in the Western Pacific since World War II. The massive exercise involved the counterclockwise sweep of these waters with the extreme right flank of the formation coming close to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Round-the-clock air operations from the carriers Enterprise, Coral Sea, and Midway were meant to make the Soviets respond by putting their eastern air bases on constant alert. During the course of the maneuvers, a combined flight of six F-14 Tomcat fighters from Midway and Enterprise flew over Zelyony Island in the Kuril Archipelago, a violation of Soviet airspace that the U.S. Navy later insisted was an accident, an explanation that the Soviets obviously did not accept.
FLEETEX 83 was only the largest effort to taunt and tease the Russian bear. Throughout the summer, Navy and Air Force reconnaissance aircraft repeatedly violated Soviet airspace, forcing the Soviet Air Force to constantly scramble its fighter planes to intercept violators. By the time the Soviet planes were in the air, the American planes would already have left the USSR and been on their way back to base. Furious leaders in Moscow put increasing pressure on their pilots to be more aggressive with the American intruders. This increasingly tense game of cat-and-mouse laid the groundwork for one of the most tragic episodes of the Cold War.
“The Target is Destroyed”
On the night of September 1, Soviet fighters scrambled yet again, this time because an American RC-135 reconnaissance plane had flown into Soviet airspace in the area of the Sakhalin Islands. The RC-135 was a modified Boeing 707, an aircraft regularly used as a commercial air liner but also used by the Air Force for communications, refueling, and intelligence gathering. The planes were based in the Aleutian Islands, and their principal mission was to monitor Soviet missile tests on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
On this particular night, not all of the radar installations on Sakhalin were functioning properly, and they would repeatedly break down during the night. Nevertheless, Soviet radar operators detected what they thought was the RC-135 before a pair of Sukhoi Su-15 fighters made visual contact with the plane. The lead pilot, Lt. Col. Gennady Osipovich got close enough to see that the plane was a large, four-engine configuration. After trying to signal the aircraft, Osipovich received instructions from the air defense command to shoot down the plane. After firing warning tracers at the aircraft to try and get its attention, Osipovich followed his orders and launched two R98 air-to-air missiles at the huge plane. Upon seeing the missiles connect with the target and explode, Osipovich radioed back in his trained, professional tone, “The target is destroyed.”
However, the plane that Osipovich brought down was not an RC-135. The reconnaissance plane had already completed its mission and left Soviet airspace on its way back to the
Aleutians. The malfunctioning radar installations had instead picked up another flight, a commercial airliner that was off course from its scheduled flight to Seoul. It was Korean
Air Lines Flight 007, a 747 jumbo jet with a four-engine configuration similar to that of the RC-135. Two missiles hit the rear fuselage of the plane and sent it spiraling into the Sea of Japan, taking all 269 passengers and crew to a watery grave. Ironically, one of those passengers was a fiercely anticommunist conservative congressman from Georgia, Lawrence McDonald.
As news broke of the catastrophe, the world reacted with shock and outrage. Reagan, a man usually known for his gentle manner and good humor, was enraged. In a nationally televised address that same night, he condemned the shootdown as an “act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.” Radio exchanges between the Russian pilots and their base had been monitored and recorded by the Japanese Ministry of Defense, which in turn passed the recordings on to Washington. That evening Reagan played a portion of the recordings, and Osipovich’s infamous four words, “The target is destroyed,” would be played and replayed on news programs throughout the world.