The Risk of 'Nuclear Exercises': In 1983, a NATO Nuclear Exercise Nearly Triggered a Nuclear War
November 10, 2015
Sam Roberts / The New York Times
In 1983, newly released documents reveal, a US/NATO nuclear training exercise code named Able Archer nearly provoked a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Neither superpower intended to go nuclear, but the risk of a mistaken miscalculation pushed an unknowing world to the brink of oblivion. While the Cuban missile crisis led JFK to sign the nuclear test ban, the 1983 incident led Reagan to Reykjavik -- and almost lead to the goal of nuclear abolition.
During the November 1983 NATO "Able Archer" nuclear release exercise, the Soviets implemented military and intelligence activities that previously were seen only during actual crises. These included: placing Soviet air forces in Germany and Poland on heightened alert, [CENSORED]....
-- The Soviet 'War Scare,' President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, February 15, 1990 (Declassified 2012)
NATO War Games Unwittingly Put Soviets and US on 'Hair Trigger' in '83, Analysis Suggests
Sam Roberts / The New York Times
(November 9, 2015) -- In December 1988, Jorg Winger was a West German Army radio operator eavesdropping on Soviet military channels when he overheard a startling message: The Russians wished him Merry Christmas by name.
"That was the moment where we realized that we had moles on the base," he recalled.
Mr. Winger, now a television producer, and his wife, Anna LeVine Winger, an American author, later harvested that incongruous holiday greeting as grist for a retro series, "Deutschland 83." They consulted a historian who provided an even more dramatic narrative arc:
In 1983, according to recently declassified documents, the Russians apparently became convinced that a NATO nuclear training exercise code named Able Archer 83 was a cover for an actual nuclear strike against the Warsaw Pact nations.
Last month, the American government finally declassified a presidential analysis of Able Archer and the Russian response that definitively dramatized how the two superpowers came closer to a nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis two decades earlier -- and, this time, by accident.
"In this case, truth turned out to be at least as strange as fiction," said Klaas Voss, the historian at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research who advised the producers. "The war scare was as real as it gets."
Dr. Voss and the Wingers knew of the story but not of the document until it was made public.
According to the February 15, 1990, analysis by the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, "In 1983 we may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger."
The fact that the Warsaw Pact's military response to Able Archer was "unparalleled in scale," the board concluded, "strongly suggests to us that Soviet military leaders may have been seriously concerned that the US would use Able Archer 83 as a cover for launching a real attack" and that "some Soviet forces were preparing to pre-empt or counterattack a NATO strike launched under cover of Able Archer."
"This situation could have been extremely dangerous if during the exercise -- perhaps through a series of ill-timed coincidences or because of faulty intelligence -- the Soviets had misperceived US actions as preparations for a real attack," the report said.
While the Soviets were transporting nuclear weapons to launchers and assigning priority targets, NATO commanders appeared to be either oblivious to the apprehension in Moscow -- already jittery over the Reagan administration's Star Wars missile defense initiative, the deployment of American Pershing II missiles in Europe and the incapacitation by illness of much of the aging Soviet leadership -- or discounted it.
In "Deutschland 83," an East German spy who has infiltrated the alliance command reveals himself to avert a war. In reality, Lt. Gen. Leonard H. Perroots, deputy chief of staff for intelligence of American Air Forces in Europe, made what the advisory board described as a "fortuitous, if ill-informed" decision not to respond to signs of the elevated Soviet military alert.
"Really scary," the board's report quoted President Ronald Reagan as saying in June 1984 after he read "a rather stunning array of indicators" of Soviet aggressiveness in the wake of Able Archer compiled by his C.I.A. director, William J. Casey.
The advisory board's heavily redacted 94-page report was made public last month, 11 years after the National Security Archive at George Washington University, a nongovernmental group that focuses on transparency, asked that it be declassified.
"This new report is the first all-source assessment, as of 1990, and should clinch the debate: This is hugely important. This war scare was real," said Thomas S. Blanton, the archive director.
"Turns out, 1983 is a classic, like the Cuban missile crisis, where neither superpower intended to go nuclear, but the risk of inadvertence, miscalculation, misperception were just really high. Cuba led J.F.K. to the test ban. Nineteen eighty-three led Reagan to Reykjavik and almost to abolition."
The document came to light as tensions between Washington and Moscow have again escalated.
"Deutschland 83" debuted in the United States in June and will be shown in Germany later this month.
"Whenever you are writing about history, you're really writing about the present as well," Ms. Winger said. "I'm not sure we meant the story as a warning, exactly, but certainly we wanted to make people think about all these things. We always imagine history is created by a massive groundswell of choreography, but at the end of the day an individual has to make decisions."
The Russians were making their decisions, in part, by feeding 40,000 variables into a computer to predict the likelihood of nuclear attack.
"Soviet intelligence clearly had tipoffs" to the Able Archer exercise, the advisory board's report said, and some scenarios suggested a nuclear first strike.
"It is an especially grave error to assume that since we know the US is not going to start World War III," the board warned, "the next leaders of the Kremlin will also believe that -- and act on that belief."
Review: 'Deutschland 83' Focuses on a\
A Reluctant Cold War Spy
The New York Times
(June 15, 2015) -- Television has featured a fair amount of spying lately, and a fair amount of 1980s nostalgia, too. But "Deutschland 83," an espionage series from Germany set in that wretched decade, is fresh and enjoyable nonetheless, distinguishing itself with a young protagonist and a losers'-history perspective.
The eight-part series, which begins on Wednesday night on SundanceTV, gives us Martin (Jonas Nay), a 24-year-old East German who is plucked from a comfortable life in the military and, against his will, turned into a spy for the Stasi, that nation's secret police. His assignment is daunting: He is to assume another man's identity and become an aide to a West German general at the heart of NATO's nuclear-deterrence strategy.
In the style of a lot of current shows, "Deutschland 83" mixes real historical events into its made-up story. Ronald Reagan and other leaders of the period turn up in video clips spouting their Cold War bombast, verbiage that today feels both scary and ridiculously simplistic.
The show has the feel of a CW series, with a young main character who both is buffeted by these grown-up forces and is the only glimmer of sanity in a world gone mad. But a classic CW viewer intending to jump aboard will need to be a student of history: People of Martin's age in the present-day audience were born after the Berlin Wall came down.
For them, and for older viewers whose memories are musty, the series is a lesson in the Cold War mentality and a reminder that to be young during that time was to live with the disquieting feeling that people considerably older than you might blow up the world at any moment.
Young people in any age, of course, feel they don't have full control over their lives, but those in the Cold War felt they also didn't have control over their deaths.
Martin certainly doesn't guide his own destiny. His manipulative aunt (Maria Schrader) pushes him into the spying assignment, and she is not above using her sister -- Martin's mother, who needs a kidney transplant -- as a weapon. If he performs well in the espionage assignment, he is told, his mother will have a favored place on the transplant list.
Anna and Jörg Winger, who created the series (which is shown with subtitles), aren't shy about mixing such domestic drama into their espionage intrigues. Martin also has a girlfriend he is reluctant to leave behind, though it turns out that she is a bit less upset by the separation than he is. And once he settles into his new role, he finds that the general he works for has his own familial dysfunctions.
The series doesn't have the depth of that other '80s spy show, "The Americans" on FX, but intentionally so. It's decidedly a drama -- lots of close calls and complications for Martin to deal with -- but there's a slight wink throughout as well, as if it were saying, "Don't take this too seriously."
Martin, for example, is not instantly a superspy. His initial efforts are amusingly clumsy. Assigned to get a look at the contents of an American general's briefcase, he makes a laughably awkward first attempt.
"Can I do anything else for you?" he asks the man moments after meeting him. "Take your briefcase?"
Ah, no, Martin; it's not going to be that easy.
The series also has some fun with Martin's encounters with the practices, luxuries and technologies of the West. The telephone system baffles him. Hotel soaps and lotions are a revelation. The practice of billing a meal to your room number leads to some embarrassing miscommunication with a waitress.
Beneath the light moments and the spy-versus-spy stuff, the series has a perspective that makes it refreshing. History, we know, is written by the winners, and even today's young-20s have seen Reagan's "tear down this wall" clip countless times.
But in 1983, that was only one possible outcome, and Reaganesque stridency sounded quite different on the Soviet side of Berlin from the way it did to the American electorate. It also sounded different to American allies like the West Germans.
"On your maps, Russia may be very far away," Martin's boss tells an American general, "but it's as close to Bonn as, say, Ohio is to D.C. The fallout alone would destroy us."
Chess is a swell game, unless you're a pawn.
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