In November 1983 the commander of the Soviet 4th Army Air Forces in Eastern Europe ordered all of his units to make “preparations for the immediate use of nuclear weapons” to pre-empt what the Soviets viewed as a seemingly inevitable nuclear strike by the USA. In fact, the Soviets had confused a NATO war game, Able Archer 1983, for real preparations for a nuclear strike.
This is arguably the closest the world has ever come to nuclear Armageddon but what makes it even more terrifying than other near misses, such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, is that at the time very few realised there was an impending nuclear disaster. The crisis was easily more dangerous that the Cuban Missile Crisis because in 1962 there had been communication between the leaders and both sides knew roughly the intention of the other, whereas in 1983 the USA were largely oblivious to the Soviet’s fears and how dangerously their war game had been misinterpreted.
The Able Archer crisis came at a time when Cold War tensions were higher than they had been for decades and there was a distinct lack of understanding between the USA and USSR, especially compared to the 1970s which had been a period of détente. President Reagan’s election in 1980 and his distinctly anti-Soviet rhetoric, coupled with an increasingly paranoid Soviet regime led to a deterioration in relations. This worsened further with Reagan’s proposed SDI initiative which threatened to destroy the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction which had been a cornerstone of Soviet defence policy. In this atmosphere the Soviet leadership became increasingly suspicious of the USA, watching carefully for any signs of a nuclear strike. This paranoia led to the Soviets shooting down a Korean Airliner which had flown into its airspace killing all 269 on board just months before the Able Archer Crisis.
The Able Archer exercise was meant to simulate a NATO nuclear strike in response to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe but was misunderstood by the Soviets as an actual preparation for a nuclear strike. A key issue was that the Soviet plan in the event of the USSR launching a nuclear strike was to disguise it as a training exercise, it therefore feared that the USA was doing the same. This combined with the conviction of the leaders that a nuclear strike was imminent meant the USSR prepared to take measures ‘unparalleled in scale’ in response.
Catastrophe was only averted due to Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, the intelligence chief for U.S. Air Forces in Europe who, instead of mobilising US troops in response to the Soviet mobilisation, recognised that the Soviets were reacting to the war game rather than preparing a strike of their own accord. This was proven by the fact that when the exercise ended a few days later so did the Soviet mobilisation.
In the aftermath of the crisis there was a conscious movement, in the US at least, to patch up relations with the USSR demonstrated through letters sent by Reagan to Andropov (all of which went unanswered). The crisis also fundamentally changed Reagan’s attitude towards the USSR because it showed him how paranoid the Soviets were. Consequently, he reduced his anti-Soviet rhetoric, paving the way for the cooperation that took place between him and Gorbachev in the late 1980s. This shows that there were some positives to come out of the crisis.
Overall, though the Able Archer Crisis of 1983 is a chilling cautionary tale of miscommunication and misunderstanding which could easily have ended in catastrophe.