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AbleArcher 83

Nov. 9, 2016 –


Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War

Edited by Nate Jones. Forward by Tom Blanton. 
A National Security Archive Book.

The New Press, (New York) 2016.

I recently got called out for being too nice in my book reviews. That’s a problem when I generally only review books that I actually like. I know I’m supposed to note something the author could have done better or some point of disagreement. But most of the books I review share my same purpose – disseminating government secrets, promoting transparency, and hopefully learning something from the past. Nate Jones’s new book on Able Archer 83 does all those things so well you should go out and buy it right now. Really! Click here and buy it now! 


That being said, I’ll pick it a part a bit too because there is just so much good stuff in there screaming for an intellectual discussion. (I hope he reads this and sends me his response so I can post it below.) 


For Jones, Able Archer 83 (Google it for the quick overview) represents the most important of the series of events in 1983 that brought about a turn in Ronald Reagan’s thinking from “evil empire” war rhetoric toward respectful engagement with the Soviet Union. Jones was not the first to identify this “turn”.  That started with Beth Fischer, as he notes, but he is the first I believe to center the turn around Reagan’s thinking about the Soviet response to Able Archer 83. That event, as Jones notes, scared the crap out of the Soviet leaders who thought the annual NATO exercise in 1983 could be a pretext for a first-strike and thus moved Soviet forces toward an elevated level of readiness. 


Jones argues that the NATO exercise could have actually been the closest the United States and Soviet Union came to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That may be true, but the problem I see is that in the Cuban Missile Crisis both American and Soviet leaders had their fingers on the button making it an actual crisis. During Able Archer 83, President Reagan barely paid attention to the exercise and had no idea the Kremlin was actually freaking out. Without both fingers on the button, I don’t see how the exercise can be elevated to the status of crisis. In fact, it wasn’t until the next year, thanks to some deft espionage, that Reagan first learned that Soviet force had actually been put on high alert and prepared for an American first-strike. 


Fortunately, Able Archer 83 is really just a lesson in poor communication brought about by heightened tensions following President Reagan’s decision to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 just two months before, and growing tensions in the middle east after the bombing of the marine barracks on Oct. 23, 1983 left almost three hundred Americans dead. Albeit, a very important lesson in what can happen when lines of communication fail during periods of heightened tension. In this case, but for cool heads in the Kremlin nuclear Armageddon may have become a reality. 


Going back to the big picture here, and this is where I think historians of the end of the cold war are in need of some help, I’m not convinced, as Jones is, that Reagan’s turn had in fact anything to do with the war scare events of 1983. Henry Maar may still convince me with his forthcoming work on the nuclear freeze movement, but for the moment I’m still of the camp that the pivot Reagan made in 1984 toward engagement with the Soviet Union was exactly inline with his campaign promises and policies when he first came into office. “We are going to negotiate from a position of strength,” he promised in the campaign. That’s exactly what he did. 


The events of 1983, including Able Archer 83, may have had an impact on his decision to engage the Soviet Union, but in my mind his turn was entirely consistent with what he had said all along. The United States was “armed to the teeth,” Pat Buchanan advised Reagan in 1985, and there was nowhere left to go but negotiate. 


Bravo Nate Jones. Thanks for fighting for these documents, twelve years alone for the February 15, 1990 President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board Report, “ The Soviet ‘War Scare.’” Don’t. Ever. Stop.

© Jason Saltoun-Ebin 2016