1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink

1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink by Taylor Downing is a detailed study of the Cold War’s most dangerous moment. Downing is a historian and writer whose best selling books include works on the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War.Taylor also writes on the history of film and television.

Almost 50% of the American population was not alive or too young to remember the Cold War. For those alive during the period, many thought it would never end, or when it did end the world would end with it. Most Americans know we came close to nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis, but for the most part, it seemed the Cold War was more political or a war where most of the dying was done by proxy states. Of course, there was the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I was in the Marines in 1983 and war concerns centered more on Latin America than the Soviet Union. 1983 was perhaps the most dangerous year for mankind.

Downing begins by tracing the Cold War back to its origins and the uneasy alliance of the US and USSR during World War II. Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev are used to show the Soviet mindset and policy changes leading up to the 1980s. A brief biography of Reagan is also included on the American side. The Brezhnev seemed like the career bureaucrat compared to Stalin he was stable. The gulag system was drastically reduced for the most part under Khrushchev. Brezhnev, for his part, increased and modernized the Soviet military at the expense of consumer goods. The Soviet gas pipeline to Europe would have increased hard currency but the effort was blocked by the US. At Brezhnev’s death, a new leader was selected. Andropov was selected over the favored Chernenko.

Reagan built up the US military after the embarrassment in Vietnam and the hostage rescue attempt in Iran. America was on the way to a 600 ship navy to meet the Soviet Union threat. The B-1B and MX missile system were to come online. Reagan publicized the Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars, and added to his warlike image in the Soviet Union. The selection of Yuri Andropov came as a shock to many. Andropov, although his personal life was unknown in the West, was the head of the KGB. That was a scary proposition for the US. He would be as anti-American as Reagan was anti-Communist.

Reagan managed to build the US military without deep paranoia. He knew that America could outspend the Soviet Union and that an arms race would destroy the Soviet Union. The perception of the leaders did not match the reality of the situation. Andropov was very paranoid as well as Soviet leadership. Soviet Embassies in the west were told to report anything that might be a hint of war planning including counting the number of lights on in buildings. The Soviets believed war, an invasion from the West was only a matter of time. There were missile scares on both sides, but cooler heads prevailed. Then there was the downing of Korean Air 007 by a Soviet fighter. Most of the American leadership believed it was intentional. The US Air Force review believed it was a case of mistaken identity but was the minority opinion by far.

Much of Korean Air 007 is still a mystery. How and why the plane was so grossly off course are unknown. Radio checks from the plane describe the flight as on course, however, it drifted into restricted Soviet airspace. Andropov repeated a fabricated story. The US insisted it was intentional. The actual events still are unknown. Star Wars put the Soviets on edge. Korean Air put the US on edge. Neither leadership wanted conflict. Paranoia grew faster on the Soviet side. The isolation from the real world of the Soviet leadership left them to paint a darker picture. Soviet Ambassadors and residents in Western embassies had a much clearer picture but had a difficult time making their leadership believe.

The crucial point came in 1983. NATO was running a War Game, Able Archer ’83, the Soviets were aware of the yearly maneuvers. Able Archer usually, as well, as in 1983 was played out as a reaction to an escalating invasion of the Soviet Union ending with the simulated nuclear attack. This year was different from other years in that the usual codes were changed, there were periods of radio silence, and participation from heads of states. Soviet intelligence saw these changes as ominous The added realism had more than the intended effect. The Soviets saw this as an actual invasion and readied its nuclear arsenal believing that a preemptive strike was underway. Soviet fighters were put on “strip alert”, seconds from launching. Andropov and other Soviet leaders were readying to authorize launch codes. November 11th the exercise ended and NATO went back to business as usual without any knowledge of the responses it caused. Reagan would later say, “I don’t see how they could believe that—but it’s something to think about.”

Think he did. Reagan slowly turned from more saber rattling and evil empire talk. His campaign in 1984 centered on “Morning in America” and not military build-ups.  He would come to work on arms reductions with the Soviets.  Andropov barely lived into 1984 and was replaced by Chernenko who lasted thirteen months.  He was replaced by Gorbachev a man both Thatcher and Reagan could work with.  The rest is history.

1983 is an interesting history with newly unclassified materials adds to the known events of the Cold War.  It adds the arms race did to leaders and how close a misunderstanding could turn to the end of the world.  Reagan was never weak on defense, but he did see what could easily happen and almost did happen.  Living under assured mutual destruction was not the way for mankind to progress. An excellent read.

Available April 24, 2018

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