The Mythical War Scare of 1983

March 16, 2021

The war began in Yemen. Soviet proxies and their American-backed foes gradually dragged their superpower patrons into direct hostilities. So too did similar groups doing battle in Syria and Iran. As 1983 progressed, Moscow looked to consolidate its gains: Yugoslavia, Finland, and Norway all fell as the Kremlin went on the offensive. On Nov. 4, 1983, under the cover of a haze of chemical weapons, the Soviet Army crossed the Fulda Gap, pushing into West Germany. Outnumbered, NATO leadership fell back on the nuclear option: strikes on Warsaw Pact capital cities intended to dissuade the invaders from the east. When these did not halt the Pact’s advance, a salvo of intermediate-range nuclear weapons was the beginning of the West’s devastating counterattack.

Or so the script went. But did the scenario for NATO’s Able Archer 83 command-post exercise nearly become dangerously real? Did the world really come to the brink of nuclear war?

In the wake of the release of the latest volume in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, Able Archer is in the news again. In the Washington Post, Nate Jones and David Hoffman declare that “the war scare was real.” Fred Kaplan, in Slate, writes that “Soviet leaders thought that the war game was real … and top Soviet military commanders took steps to retaliate.” And in Defense One, Steve Blank warns that “the world’s superpowers drew near to accidental nuclear war” because of computer models. The National Security Archive, a longtime proponent of the view that Able Archer nearly triggered a nuclear war, similarly highlights “the danger of Able Archer.” In Esquire, Charles Pierce simply concludes that “one day in 1983 we nearly blew the hell out of the planet.” These are serious, dramatic claims — we were “thirty minutes from nuclear war,” exclaims the tabloid Daily Mail — but there is more to this story than meets the eye, if one looks at all of the new information in the State Department release.



Elizabeth Charles of the Department of State’s Office of the Historian has put together an invaluable collection of new materials on superpower relations at the beginning of the 1980s, including two meticulous editorial notes on Able Archer. Those who present Able Archer as a near miss with nuclear war zero in on a passage in a 1989 memorandum by Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, assistant chief of staff for intelligence at U.S. Air Forces Europe during the 1983 exercise. In the opinion of Perroots’ analytical team, some Soviet aircraft in East Germany and Poland went on alert with a self-protection electronic jamming pod mounted. Some have read this passage in the document to mean that these aircraft were loaded for nuclear war. This incomplete information is not proof that live nuclear weapons, ready for use, were loaded onto these aircraft, spooled up on the flight line at high readiness. Nor is a heightened alert opposite a major NATO exercise proof of a brush with Armageddon. As a U.S. special national intelligence estimate produced in the spring of 1984 stresses, bringing just this small subset of Soviet forces to a heightened alert makes little sense if Moscow were contemplating the prospect of nuclear war: “by confining heightened readiness to selected air units Moscow clearly revealed that it did not in fact think there was a possibility of a NATO attack.” As that report’s author, Fritz Ermarth, then the national intelligence officer for the Soviet Union and East Europe, later put it, the United States could “judge confidently the difference between when [the Warsaw Pact] might be brewing up for a real military confrontation or … just rattling their pots and pans.” Soviet activities were not, Ermarth and the intelligence community concluded “real military preparations.”

In fact, Perroots’ own memo offers a simple explanation. “As the kickoff date of Able Archer neared,” he recalls, “it was clear that there was a great deal of Soviet interest in the forthcoming events. Again, this seemed nothing out of the ordinary.” And then, when he described this “unusual activity” to his boss, Gen. Billy Minter, Perroots explained that it “was probably a reaction to the ongoing Able Archer. He asked if I thought we should increase the real force generation [the actual, nonexercise-scenario, readiness level]. I said that we would carefully watch the situation, but there was insufficient evidence to justify increasing our real alert posture.” What changed Perroots’ mind years later was not new information on what the Soviets were actually doing, but the revelation that a KGB double-agent (and later defector), Oleg Gordievsky, reported to his British handlers that he had seen a flash telegram on either Nov. 8 or 9. As Gordievsky tells it in a book coauthored with Christopher Andrew, that message led him to conclude that Moscow feared that U.S. forces “might even have begun the countdown to nuclear war” and that Able Archer “marked the beginning of preparations for a nuclear first strike.” The source of these documents, according to Gordievsky, was Project RYaN (short for Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie, or nuclear missile attack), the Warsaw Pact intelligence initiative to gain foresight into Western strategy.

There are more sources than just Perroots and Gordievsky, and they point in a very different direction. National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane, when asked in 1988 by the intelligence community about Able Archer, explained:

[T]he President … saw this reporting attributed to Gordiyevskiy in the larger context of a Soviet ‘war-scare’ campaign arising from the NATO decision to deploy INF [intermediate-range nuclear forces] and from Reagan’s hard line on defense, SDI [the Strategic Defense Initiative], etc. In the President’s view, either the Soviets were paranoid in strange ways we could not let bother us, or they were fabricating the appearance of fear to intimidate and sway us, which we should even more be prepared to ignore. … Bud said he discounted Gordiyevskiy’s impact on the President.

Jack Matlock, the National Security Council’s senior Soviet hand, echoes McFarlane: “the Soviet leadership is not overly nervous about the immediate prospect of armed confrontation with the [United States].” Ermarth, McFarlane, Matlock, and even Perroots at the time all got it right.

On issues like the danger of Able Archer, we should not simply take the U.S. government’s word for it. If this is a question of Warsaw Pact perceptions, the dispositive evidence will not be U.S. Air Force intelligence conclusions, nor even will it come from the White House of President Ronald Reagan. It needs to come from the Eastern bloc. Thanks to the opening of political, military, and intelligence archives in the former member states of the Warsaw Pact, we actually have a great deal of insight into what happened during Able Archer as the Soviets watched events unfold in November 1983. These sources include intelligence products and interviews with senior Soviet national security leaders, and they show that characterizations of the exercise as having almost escalated out of control are not supported. As Perroots looked east, we know what those whom he was observing were actually thinking about NATO’s exercise.

When East German defense minister Heinz Hoffmann briefed Erich Honecker, the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s general secretary, he framed Able Archer as a means of further subordinating the militaries of independent NATO members to the United States and emphasized that the exercise would unfold as it had in previous years. He expressed no alarm over the increased nuclear element in his briefing. The full East German military overview demonstrates a striking familiarity with the exercise’s script beforehand, including the escalation of a conventional war following the Warsaw Pact’s use of chemical weapons and NATO’s limited, five-day use of nuclear weapons soon thereafter. But the report stresses that the rehearsal of escalating to nuclear war with the Warsaw Pact was “a function of the exercise’s objectives and does not reflect NATO’s actual assessment of the international situation.” This same sanguinity can be found in the Czechoslovak military intelligence report on the Autumn Forge series of exercises, which included Able Archer. The report is brief, which is telling in its own right: The section on Able Archer is barely over a page in length. It outlines Able Archer’s role as the culmination of Autumn Forge and its unique inclusion of the transition from conventional to nuclear war.

Gen. Viktor Esin, a former chief of staff of the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces, for example recounted that Soviet commanders “knew that NATO were doing an exercise, [but were] not really planning for the nuclear blow.” Anatoly Cherniaev of the Central Committee’s International Department similarly insisted that “we can rule out that there was real fear of a nuclear attack” during the exercise. Gen. Andrian Danilevich, when asked about Able Archer, “acknowledged that there was a ‘period of great tension’ of which he had vivid personal memories, especially in 1983, but [stated] that there was never a ‘war scare.’” Danilevich, the chief adviser on nuclear doctrine to the Soviet General Staff, insisted that “no one believed there was a real likelihood (immediate threat) of a nuclear strike from the [United States] or NATO.” And according to Adm. Vladen Smirnoff, “Able Archer was just a typical exercise … there was nothing outstanding about it” to Soviet observers. “Quite frankly,” snapped Gen. Igor Kondratev of Soviet military intelligence tellingly — after a lengthy line of questioning on the subject of the exercise — “I don’t understand your special interest [in] this particular exercise.”

This is only a selection of Soviet leaders on the record contradicting the popular myth of an Able Archer war-scare. Many others from various parts of the Soviet and Warsaw Pact bureaucracy have echoed them. This confidence stemmed in large part from the fact that Soviet military officials “listened to the hourly circuit verification signal on [NATO] nuclear release communications systems and believed [they] would recognize a release order,” according to Gen. Geli Batenin of the Soviet General Staff — access corroborated by Vladimir Kryuchkov of the KGB. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between scholars who incorporate Eastern bloc sources in their work and who take a less alarmist stance on the events surrounding Able Archer: Mark Kramer, Gordon Barrass, Raymond Garthoff, Beatrice Heuser, Vojtech Mastny, and others have all used such sources to challenge the notion of a brush with nuclear disaster.

Meanwhile, the much-touted Project RYaN never put the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal on a hair trigger. The image of a supercomputer deep in the Lubyanka may have all the hallmarks of a Cold War classic, but it is a far cry from the reality in November 1983. Barely a month before Able Archer, Kryuchkov summed up the state of Project RYaN for his East German Stasi colleagues: “this work is being done at the Institute for Research on Operational Problems” — in other words, the KGB’s research and development wing, not one of the operational directorates — and “the central and fundamental decisions have yet to be taken.” Even in 1986, Warsaw Pact intelligence officials concluded that the technology at the core of RYaN still needed significant improvement for it to be a solid basis for any decision. To Markus Wolf, the long-time head of Stasi foreign intelligence, RYaN was no more than a “burdensome waste of time.” Even Gordievsky himself, whose recollection of one message is at the heart of the Able Archer myth, later confirmed that “intelligence professionals on the Soviet side did not take seriously the much ballyhooed warning system.”

What, then, are we to make of the undeniably tense atmosphere of the early 1980s, and the fall of 1983 — punctuated by the Soviet downing of Korean Airlines flight 7, the U.S. invasion of Grenada, and massive protests against the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear forces to Western Europe — in particular? Here, Reagan was right: The broader war scare atmosphere was in no small part manufactured by Soviet leaders in order to generate hostility to the deployment of further U.S. nuclear weapons, and they knew what they were doing. As top Kremlin foreign policy aide Andrei Aleksandrov-Agentov put it, “we scared our own people.” Meanwhile, the evidence shows that Soviet leaders were very much aware of what they were doing. As Yuri Andropov, the general secretary during Able Archer, put it to Vice President George H.W. Bush, “of course, the two sides could engage in debate and even sometimes scold each other in the press or in some other forum, but when it came to specific matters it was absolutely necessary to act as sober-minded and normal people.” It is vital to disaggregate fairly common boilerplate — especially from an intelligence agency — about surprise-prevention and the risks of being caught unawares from what leaders said in private and, above all, what they did.

These new sources on Able Archer are no smoking gun. Looking at more than just the U.S. side of the story makes it a very different one. But what happened in November 1983 is not mere trivia. A more complete understanding of what actually happened during Able Archer does not only matter for the sake of establishing whether or not a nuclear war nearly broke out — though that is surely an intrinsically important historical fact. The number of cases when it comes to nuclear crises is so small (for reasons ranging from over-classification to entirely legitimate classification) that changing our understanding of just one has important implications for our conception of the whole — and of the role nuclear weapons play in international politics. The history and historiography of Able Archer are important reminders of the need to gain access to primary documents from the ‘other side’ as an integral part of using history to inform policy.

Nuclear weapons are not without danger, to be sure. An overinflation of the risk of Able Archer should not be necessary to remind policymakers of that point: of the importance of frank dialogue between leaders, or of the need to take seriously the responsibility of being a nuclear-armed state — both in fact strikingly present in 1983. The risks of our nuclear world are real, even if they were not as dangerous as they might have been in this particular case.



Simon Miles is assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He is the author of Engaging the Evil Empire: Washington, Moscow, and the Beginning of the End of the Cold War.

Image: Wikicommons (Photo by U.S. Air Force)