How a NATO Military Exercise Freaked Out Russia (And Nearly Started a Nuclear War)

How a NATO Military Exercise Freaked Out Russia (And Nearly Started a Nuclear War)

The story of Able Archer. 

At CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the documents landed on the desk of the agency’s mercurial director, William Casey, who personally delivered the documents to the White House, where they were first glimpsed by Reagan’s National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane. At first, McFarlane was skeptical, but the urgent reports by Gordievsky, Britain’s highest-placed spy in the KGB, were enough to finally convince him. McFarlane took the problem to the president.

Defusing the Crisis

A flurry of diplomatic cables flashed from Washington to Moscow, giving repeated and wholehearted assurances that Able Archer was simply an exercise. Reagan sent presidential adviser Brent Scowcroft to the Soviet capital to give further assurances, face to face, on behalf of the president that the United States would never launch a surprise attack on the USSR. The effort was not enough to convince Andropov of Reagan’s good intentions, but it was enough for him to watch and wait. Throughout the rest of the Able Archer exercise, Soviet forces stayed on alert, braced and ready to move at a moment’s notice. Only when the exercise finally concluded on November 11 did the Soviet Union give the order for its strategic forces to stand down.

In the end, simple human reasoning overcame the ideology and overheated rhetoric of the age. The deep mistrust and animosity between the two sides were not enough to trump the staggering price that would have been paid for acting upon them. Nuclear winter was averted—for the time being at least—but the chill had come uncomfortably close.

This article by Todd Avery Raffensperger originally appeared on Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons