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Context of 'November 2-11, 1983: ’Able Archer’ Almost Starts Nuclear Exchange'

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Newly elected President Ronald Reagan begins his first term with a cabinet and senior staff made up of two quite different brands of conservatives. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, in his 1991 book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, will describe an administration riven between “pragmatists” or “realists,” whom their opponents dismiss as “accomodationists” or “one-worlders,” and “conservatives” or “Reaganauts,” whom their opponents label “crazies” or “hard-liners.” Both groups staunchly oppose communism and support increased defense spending, but they diverge on the subject of negotiating with the Soviet Union. The “pragmatists” favor working to extend the idea of detente with the USSR, while the “Reaganauts” see any such negotiations as nothing but appeasement of a murderous and implacable foe (see June 18, 1979-Winter 1979). During Reagan’s first term, particularly in the first three years, the “Reaganauts” hold the upper hand in setting his administration’s foreign policy. In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will write, “This period marked the closest conservatives came during the Cold War to seeing their principles translated into policy.” It also marks the closest the world came to an all-out nuclear war between the two superpowers since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 (see November 2-11, 1983). The “pragmatists” will have much more say in setting policy during the last five years of Reagan’s presidency, and as a result will help engineer a dramatic reduction in tensions between the US and the Soviet Union as well as a treaty eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons (see December 7-8, 1987). By the end of Reagan’s presidency, many conservatives have gone from enthusiastically supporting his policies to considering him a traitor to their ideology (see 1988). [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 115-116]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, J. Peter Scoblic, Lou Cannon

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

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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