In 1983, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were as cold as they had ever been, with President Ronald Reagan’s administration pushing a tough policy of confrontation and Soviet boss Yuri Andropov (a hardline former head of the KGB) leading a coterie of increasingly paranoid old men in the Kremlin. It was a tense year, from Reagan’s “evil empire” speech in March to the Soviet downing of a civilian airliner in September.
In November 1983, the United States and NATO conducted an exercise, code-named “ABLE ARCHER.” This was a war game designed, among other things, to test channels of communication between North America and Europe during the transition from conventional to nuclear operations in a hypothetical World War III. Although NATO’s traffic was encoded, every message began with “Exercise,” which U.S. and NATO leaders assumed the Soviets could recognize.
Instead, American intelligence officers soon realized that the Soviet Union was reacting to ABLE ARCHER as though it were actually preparation for a NATO nuclear first strike. Although Soviet strategists had often written about the possibility that the U.S. might launch a war under the pretext of exercises – a classic case of projection, to be sure – no one seriously thought the Kremlin believed the West would ignite a war out of nowhere, and certainly not at a massive disadvantage in men and weapons.
The Soviet reaction (first detected by the British during the exercise) alarmed the Americans, who struggled to make sense of what they saw as an irrational Soviet overreaction to a war game. Once the burst of traffic between the U.S. and Europe died down, the Soviets backed away from their retaliatory preparations. But Reagan, especially, took away a lesson from 1983 and from ABLE ARCHER in particular: it was time to reach out to the Kremlin, whose masters were far more fearful and insecure than anyone until that moment had realized.
Every one of these crises could have resulted in a global conflagration. Earlier crises (such as the Berlin Blockade of 1948 or the Korean attack of 1950) could have led to war, but they took place before the superpowers developed huge stockpiles of nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles. Each crisis was eventually resolved in favor of peace, but in every case both sides relied on gambles, and survived as much by luck as by strategy.
At some point, luck runs out. We can only hope, over 30 years after the last Cold War crisis, that Vladimir Putin and his subordinates in the Kremlin are done gambling with international peace.
Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School.
This first appeared in 2014.