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Context of 'May 1981: Soviet Union Prepares for US First Strike'

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The US begins launching what the Pentagon calls “psychological operations,” or PSYOPS, against the USSR. The operations consist in part of military exercises designed to agitate and frighten the USSR into believing the US might be preparing for a military assault. Few outside of the White House and the Pentagon’s top officials—and Soviet officials, of course—know about the series of provocative exercises. Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle will later recall: “It was very sensitive. Nothing was written down about it, so there would be no paper trail.” The idea behind the operations is to keep the Soviets off-balance about what, if anything, the US might do. It also is designed to probe for gaps and vulnerabilities in the Soviets’ early warning intelligence system. General Jack Chain, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) commander, will later recall: “Sometimes we would send bombers over the North Pole and their radars would click on. Other times fighter-bombers would probe their Asian or European periphery.” Sometimes the operations send out several probes in a week, coming at irregular intervals to make the effect that much more unsettling. Then the probes stop, only to begin again several weeks later. Undersecretary of State for Military Assistance and Technology Dr. William Schneider will later recall: “It really got to them. They didn’t know what it all meant. A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace, and other radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then at the last minute the squadron would peel off and return home.” The operations include naval incursions as well as aerial missions, with US aircraft carrier groups regularly conducting exercises alarmingly close to Soviet military and industrial sites, often without being detected until the groups are already in place. Some exercises simulate surprise attacks on Soviet targets, sometimes simulating air assaults on Soviet fighter units. The naval pressure is particularly intense in the area of the North Atlantic called the “Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap.” [Fischer, 3/19/2007]

Entity Tags: William Schneider Jr., Fred C. Ikle, US Department of Defense, Jack Chain

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan, recuperating from surgery to remove an assassin’s bullet, tells bedside visitor Terence Cardinal Cooke that God spared his life so that he might “reduce the threat of nuclear war.”
Censored Letter to Brezhnev - The day after his conversation with Cooke, Reagan pens a letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev calling for “disarmament” and a “world without nuclear weapons.” Brezhnev does not read Reagan’s words; Reagan’s aides, horrified at the letter, rewrite it and strip out all the phrases calling for a reduction in nuclear weapons before sending it to Brezhnev.
Aides Refuse to Draw up Plans for Disarmament - In the following weeks, Reagan will call nuclear weapons “horrible” and “inherently evil,” and order his aides to draw up plans for their elimination. His aides will refuse to deliver those plans; one adviser, Richard Burt (see Early 1981 and After), will exclaim: “He can’t have a world without nuclear weapons! Doesn’t he understand the realities?”
Wants to Stop Nuclear Armageddon - Reagan believes in the literal Biblical story of Armageddon—the End Times—and believes that it will come about through the use of nuclear weapons. Unlike some conservative Christians (and some of his advisers), he does not relish the prospect, and in fact believes it is his task to prevent it from happening.
Plans to Reduce Nuclear Arms Based on Prescience, Ignorance - Author J. Peter Scoblic will note it is difficult to reconcile the view of Reagan as an advocate of nuclear disarmament with the confrontational, sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric and actions by him and his administration (see Early 1981 and After, Early 1981 and After, September 1981 through November 1983, March 1982, and Spring 1982), but Scoblic will write: “Each of these efforts, however, can also be interpreted as a sincere, if misguided, product of Reagan’s hatred of nuclear weapons. Reagan believed that the Soviets would reduce their atomic arsenal only if they were faced with the prospect of an arms race.” Reagan realizes—ahead of many of his advisers—that the USSR was moving towards a calamitous economic crisis, and believes that the Soviets will choose to step back from further rounds of escalation in order to save their economy from complete collapse. He also believes, with some apparent conflict in logic, that the only way to reduce US nuclear arms is to increase the nation’s military arsenal. “Reagan emphasized time and again, that the aim of his arms build-up was to attain deep cuts in nuclear weapons,” biographer Paul Lettow will write. “[M]ost people did not listen to what he was actually saying.” Scoblic cites what he calls Reagan’s profound ignorance of nuclear strategy and tactical capabilities as another driving force behind Reagan’s vision of nuclear disarmament. He is not aware that submarines and long-range bombers carry nuclear missiles; he believes that submarine-based nuclear missiles can be called back once in flight. Both ideas are wrong. He tells foreign policy adviser Brent Scowcroft that he did not realize the primary threat from the Soviet Union was that its gigantic arsenal of ICBMs might obliterate the US’s own ICBM stockpile. When journalists ask him how the MX missile program (see 1981) that he has asserted will rectify the threat to American ICBMs, as he has asserted, he confesses that he does not know. And he honestly does not seem to understand that his administration’s confrontational, sometimes overtly belligerent actions (see May 1982 and After, June 8, 1982, March 23, 1983, and November 2-11, 1983) cause apprehension and even panic among the Soviet military and political leadership. Scoblic will write that like other hardline conservatives, “Reagan could not believe that anyone could perceive the United States as anything but righteous.”
'Subject to Manipulation' - Reagan’s desire for a reduction in nuclear arms is not matched by any depth of understanding of the nuclear weapons issues. Therefore, Scoblic will observe, “[h]e was susceptible to manipulation by advisers who shared his militant anti-communism but not his distaste for nuclear deterrence and who wanted neither arms reduction nor arms control.” When he names George Shultz as his secretary of state in mid-1982, he gains a key ally in his plans for nuclear reduction and a counterweight to arms-race advocates such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and other hardliners who have worked (and continue to work) to sabotage the administration’s arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. He gains another ally when he replaces National Security Adviser William Clark with the more pragmatic Robert McFarlane. Both Shultz and McFarlane will support Reagan’s desire to begin sincere negotiations with the USSR on reducing nuclear arms, as does his wife, Nancy Reagan, who wants her husband to be remembered by history as reducing, not increasing, the risk of nuclear war. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 136-138]

Entity Tags: Robert C. McFarlane, Leonid Brezhnev, J. Peter Scoblic, George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, Brent Scowcroft, Nancy Reagan, Richard Burt, Terence Cardinal Cooke, Ronald Reagan, William Clark, Paul Lettow

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Yuri Andropov, the head of the Soviet KGB intelligence agency, tells a group of KGB officers that the US is actively preparing for war with the USSR, and warns of “the possibility of a nuclear first strike” by the Americans. The KGB describes the program thusly: “One of the chief directions for the activity of the KGB’s foreign service is to organize detection and assessment of signs of preparation [for a surprise nuclear attack] in all possible areas, i.e., political, economic and military sectors, civil defense and the activity of the special services.” Andropov, who will become the head of the Soviet government in 1982, helps direct the KGB and GRU (the Soviet military intelligence agency) to make preparations for that strike its top priority. The agencies instruct Soviet agents in NATO capitals and Japan to make “close observation[s] of all political, military, and intelligence activities that might indicate preparations for mobilization.” The program, called VRYAN (the Soviet acronym for “Surprise Nuclear Missile Attack”), takes even greater priority once Andropov rises to power. [Fischer, 3/19/2007; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 134] (Others such as CIA researcher Benjamin Fischer will refer to the program in their writings as “Operation RYAN.”) Fischer will write that VRYAN, or RYAN, is based on “genuine fears” among the Soviet military and political leadership. Andropov’s KGB in particular feels that the international situation, or what the Soviets call the “correlation of world forces,” is “turning against the USSR and increasing its vulnerability.” In conjunction with the Reagan’s administration hardline stance towards the Soviet Union, an increase in US-led military exercises and psychological warfare missions conducted close to Soviet borders, and an increase in the US’s ability to thwart Soviet early warning systems, this perception prompts the Soviets to not only voice their concern over the possibility of a US first strike, but to prepare for it. Fischer also notes that in some ways, Operation VRYAN and Moscow’s uneasiness over the US threat is sparked by bitter memories of Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 surprise invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis. The program, Fischer will write, abandons caution and the usual tradecraft of intelligence-gathering, and instead relies on often-unreliable data supplied by East German intelligence sources. [Fischer, 3/19/2007]

Entity Tags: Operation VRYAN, Yuri Andropov, Benjamin Fischer, KGB, Russian Military Intelligence (GRU)

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Reagan officials reopen the stalled Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union, against the advice of President Reagan’s more hardline officials (see January 1981 and After). The talks center on the Soviets’ SS-20 missile, designed to strike European targets. In return, then-President Carter had agreed to deploy US intermediate-range nuclear missiles—Pershing II’s and Tomahawks—in West Germany and Italy by 1983. According to author J. Peter Scoblic, the missiles have little real military value, as American ICBMs, submarine-based nuclear missiles, and long-range bombers could destroy Soviet targets with near-impunity. They do, however, have some political significance, mostly in helping tie European security to US security. Carter had agreed to open talks with the Soviets to get rid of the SS-20s entirely.
Hardliners Sabotage Talks - The more pragmatic Reagan officials succeed in reopening the talks; Reagan hardliners, thwarted in stopping the talks, set about sabotaging them in any way available. When arguments in favor of delays and “further study” finally fail, they pressure Reagan to offer an agreement they know the Soviets will refuse: the so-called “zero option,” which originates with Defense Department official Richard Perle (see Early 1981 and After). Perle says that the Soviets should remove all of the SS-20s, and in return, the US will not deploy its Pershings and Tomahawks—in essence, having the Soviets concede something for essentially nothing. State Department officials suggest a fallback position in case the Soviets reject Perle’s offering; in his turn, Perle appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee and compares anyone who opposes his zero-sum offering to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler in 1938.
'Walk in the Woods' - When the Soviets reject Perle’s option, Reagan hardliners argue that the government should accept no compromise. The head of the INF negotiation team, Paul Nitze—a Cold War figure who has come out against arms control (see January 1976) but is not fully trusted by the hardline ideologues because of his history as an arms negotiator—wants a compromise. In official negotiations, he sticks to the all-or-nothing position of Perle, but opens private, informal negotiations with his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky. One afternoon in 1982, Nitze and Kvitsinsky go for what later becomes known as their “walk in the woods.” Sitting together on a log during an afternoon rainstorm, the two hammer out an agreement that greatly favors the US—mandating a 67 percent reduction in Soviet SS-20s and allowing the US to deploy an equal number of Tomahawks. Not only would the Soviets have to reduce their already-deployed contingent of missiles and the US be allowed to deploy missiles, because the Tomahawks carry more independent warheads than the SS-20s, the US would have a significant advantage in firepower. The deal also sets limits on SS-20 deployments in Asia, and forbids the Soviets from developing ground-launched cruise missiles. In return, the US would agree not to deploy its Pershing missiles.
Hardliners Block Agreement - Perle and his hardline allies in the Reagan administration succeed in blocking acceptance of the Nitze-Kvitsinsky agreement. As author J. Peter Scoblic later writes, “Perle’s ideological obstructionism—concisely conveyed in his disparagement of Nitze as ‘an inverterate problem-solver’—reached fantastic heights.” Perle first tried to block Reagan from even learning the details of the agreement, and lied to Reagan, asserting falsely that the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the agreement. Perle, in conjunction with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, eventually convinces Reagan to stick to the “zero option.” Perle argues against pressure from key US allies such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, telling Reagan, “We can’t just do something; we’ve got to stand there—and stand firm.” In 1983, Perle tells Weinberger that it would be better for the US to deploy no missiles at all than to accept the agreement. Scoblic will write: “In other words, he argued that foregoing deployment in return for nothing was better than foregoing deployment in exchange for something. The position made no sense, but the Reagan team held firm to it, once again preventing the adoption of a viable arms control deal.” When the US deploys Pershing missiles in Europe in November 1983, the Soviets walk out of the talks. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 120-123]

Entity Tags: Richard Perle, Margaret Thatcher, Joint Chiefs of Staff, J. Peter Scoblic, Caspar Weinberger, Paul Nitze, Ronald Reagan, Reagan administration, Senate Armed Services Committee, US Department of State, Yuli Kvitsinsky

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

In another speech excoriating communism, President Reagan promises the British Parliament that “the march of freedom and democracy… will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expressionism of the people.” He promises that the “forces of good [will] ultimately rally and triumph over evil,” and says that the West cannot successfully coexist with communist regimes: “Must freedom wither in a quiet, deadening accomodation with totalitarian evil?” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 116-117]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

One of five secret, underground ‘control rooms’ built by East German intelligence to help coordinate a Soviet counterattack against a US first strike.One of five secret, underground ‘control rooms’ built by East German intelligence to help coordinate a Soviet counterattack against a US first strike. [Source: Central Intelligence Agency]By the beginning of 1983, the world seems closer to a nuclear holocaust than it has since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The idea of detente between the US and the Soviet Union has been all but abandoned, and European allies of the US use the term “Cold War II” to describe the new, chilly relations between the two superpowers. French President Francois Mitterrand compares the situation to the 1962 Cuban crisis and the 1948 confrontation over Berlin. American Cold War expert George Kennen says that the confrontation has the “familiar characteristics, the unfailing characteristics, of a march toward war—that and nothing else.” While there is little confrontation between the two in a military sense, the tensions are largely manifested in the rhetoric of the two sides, with President Reagan calling the USSR an “evil empire” (see March 8, 1983) and declaring that American democracy will leave Soviet communism on “the ash-heap of history” (see June 8, 1982). In return, Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov calls Reagan “insane” and “a liar.” The Soviet propaganda machine releases a storm of invective against Reagan and the US in general, comparing Reagan to Adolf Hitler and America to Nazi Germany. CIA analyst Benjamin Fischer will later write, “Such hyperbole was more a consequence than a cause of tension, but it masked real fears” (see May 1981). The Soviets are particularly worried about the US’s intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), the Pershing IIs, to be deployed throughout Europe (see September 1981 through November 1983), as well as the Americans’ new cruise missiles, the Tomahawks. Once those missiles are in place, the US, if it so desired, could destroy most of the Soviets’ own ballistic missile sites with only four to six minutes’ warning. The Soviets’ own plans for pre-emptive strikes against the US have the destruction of the European Pershing and Tomahawk emplacements as a top priority. [Fischer, 3/19/2007]

Entity Tags: Francois Mitterrand, Benjamin Fischer, Yuri Andropov, George Kennen, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

The KGB, the Soviet intelligence directorate, issues a “high alert” for its Operation VRYAN intelligence alert system monitoring the US for signs of a possible military and nuclear assault (see May 1981). Provoked by two years of US military provocations (see 1981-1983), fearing that the rhetorical war between the US and the USSR (see Early 1983) is ready to explode into something far more concrete, and disheartened by worries that the Soviet Union is losing ground in its global contest with the US (see Early 1981), the Kremlin informs all KGB “rezidenturas,” or station chiefs, that VRYAN has “acquired an especial degree of urgency” and is “now of particularly grave importance.” Forty station chiefs receive new orders marked “strictly personal,” instructing them to organize a “continual watch” using their entire operational staff. They are also ordered to redirect existing agents who might have access to VRYAN-related information, to recruit new agents, and to escalate surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations. [Fischer, 3/19/2007]

Entity Tags: Operation VRYAN, KGB

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan gives his famous “evil empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals. The speech is designed to dissuade Christian evangelicals from supporting a freeze on the production and deployment of nuclear weapons, as the Conference of Catholic Bishops had already done. The speech, written by Anthony Dolan, a follower of hard-line conservative philosopher William F. Buckley, is what author J. Peter Scoblic calls “a model conservative blend of religious traditionalism and anticommunism [that makes] explicit the link between Manicheanism and nuclear war fighting.” The cause is not merely peaceful co-existence, but an apocalyptic battle between good (the West) and evil (the Soviet empire), one that must be won no matter the costs. “We must never forget that no government schemes are going to perfect man,” Reagan tells his listeners. “We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin. There is sin and evil in the world, and we are enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.” Supporting the nuclear freeze movement would be to commit the sin of moral relativism, Reagan says, putting moral strictures aside for temporal, even political concerns. “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride,” he warns, “the temptation of blithely declaring yourself above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 117]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Anthony Dolan, J. Peter Scoblic, Conference of Catholic Bishops

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Test firing of a US Pershing II IRBM.Test firing of a US Pershing II IRBM. [Source: US Army / Public domain]The US and its NATO allies carry out a military exercise called “Able Archer,” or “Able Archer 83,” designed to simulate the use of nuclear weapons in an assault against the Soviet Union, and to test command and control procedures. The military exercise comes perilously close to touching off a real nuclear exchange with the USSR. The exercise—not the first of its kind, but the most expansive—is huge, spanning Europe from Turkey to Scandinavia; it involves the heads of state of countries like Great Britain and Germany; and, perhaps most alarmingly for the Soviets, involves NATO forces escalating their military alert levels to DEFCON-1, at which point NATO nuclear weapons have their safeguards disabled and are ready for launch. The Soviet’s VRYAN program to detect a possible assault (see May 1981) is extremely active. On November 8, Moscow sends high-priority telegrams to its KGB stations in Western Europe demanding information about a possible surprise first attack on the USSR. Though little actual evidence exists, some sources erroneously tell Moscow that NATO ground forces are mobilizing. The KGB concludes that “Able Archer” is a cover for a real military assault; Warsaw Pact fighter units armed with nuclear weapons are put on alert in East Germany and Poland. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 134-135; Cardiff Western News, 11/10/2008]
'Frighteningly Close' to Nuclear War, Says Soviet Intelligence Official - Oleg Gordievsky, the intelligence chief of the Soviet embassy in London and a British double agent, warns the British that the West is entering what he calls a “danger zone.” The Daily Telegraph will later write, “It was on Nov. 8-9 that the Kremlin had pressed what came close to a panic button.” [Washington Post, 10/16/1988] In his memoirs, Gordievsky will write: “In the tense atmosphere generated by the crises and rhetoric of the past few months, the KGB concluded that American forces had been placed on alert—and might even have begun the countdown to war.… [D]uring ABLE ARCHER 83 it had, without realizing it, come frighteningly close—certainly closer than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.” [Fischer, 3/19/2007]
Reagan 'Shocked' at Soviet Reaction - The exercise ends without incident, but National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane will later admit, “The situation was very grave.” Secretary of State George Shultz terms the exercise “a close call” and “quite sobering.” In early 1984, when the CIA reports that the Soviets had been convinced that the US was readying a nuclear strike, President Reagan will be, in author J. Peter Scoblic’s words, “shocked” to realize that he and his administration “had nearly started a nuclear war.” Reagan, in McFarlane’s recollection, will show “genuine anxiety” and begin talking about the concept of Armageddon—the Biblical end times—with his advisers. [Fischer, 3/19/2007; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 134-135]

Entity Tags: Operation VRYAN, Ronald Reagan, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, KGB, J. Peter Scoblic, George Shultz, Robert C. McFarlane, ’Able Archer’, Central Intelligence Agency, Oleg Gordievsky

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan, still shaken from the near-catastrophe of the “Able Archer” exercise (see November 2-11, 1983) and his viewing of the nuclear holocaust film The Day After (see November 20, 1983), receives a briefing on the nation’s nuclear war plans (see March 1982). Reagan had put off the briefing for almost two years, causing some of his more hardline advisers and officials to wonder if the president was losing his taste for a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Some of them privately believe that Reagan might never order a nuclear attack on the USSR no matter what the provocation. The briefing is anchored by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Vessey. They explain to Reagan that the US has 50,000 Soviet sites targeted for nuclear strikes; half of those sites are economic, industrial, political, and population centers. If the US launches such a strike, they say, the USSR would almost certainly retaliate, destroying the US as a functional society. Officials at the briefing later recall Reagan appearing “chastened” and brooding afterwards. In his diary, Reagan calls the briefing a “most sobering experience,” and writes of how much the briefing reminds him of The Day After: “In several ways, the sequence of events described in the briefings paralleled those in the ABC movie.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 133] He also writes in his diary how he is “even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and the Russians had nothing to fear from us.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 139]

Entity Tags: Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan, John Vessey

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Though President Reagan has long vowed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons between the US and Soviet Union (see April 1981 and After and March-April 1982), because of a variety of factors—his recalcitrant anti-communism (see May 27, 1981, June 8, 1982, and March 8, 1983), his belief that escalating the arms race between the two countries would force the Soviets to give up their attempt to stay abreast of the Americans (see Early 1981 and After, Early 1981 and After, and Spring 1982), and his aides’ success at sabotaging the US-Soviet arms negotiations (see January 1981 and After, September 1981 through November 1983, May 1982 and After, and April 1983-December 1983)—recent events (see November 2-11, 1983 and November 20, 1983) have convinced him that he must fundamentally change the way he approaches the US’s dealings with the Soviets. He tells reporters that he will no longer refer to the USSR as “the focus of evil.” He drops what is known as “the standard threat speech” and begins speaking more frequently and openly of nuclear disarmament, to the dismay of many of his hardline advisers. In one speech, he says: “The fact that neither of us likes the other system is no reason to refuse to talk. Living in this nuclear age makes it imperative that we do talk.” Speechwriter Jack Matlock, a pragmatist recently put in charge of the National Security Council’s Soviet affairs desk, wins Reagan’s approval to insert a quote from a speech by President Kennedy: “So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved.” He stops using terms like “conflict” in favor of terms such as “misunderstandings.” The rhetoric of “good vs evil,” of “us vs them,” is set aside in favor of discussions of mutual interests and problem solving. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 138-139]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Jack Matlock, National Security Council

Timeline Tags: US International Relations


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