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Misperception is an enduring problem in relations between people and states. The inevitable consequence of living in a world with other human beings is a constant uncertainty about the future, because we can never know what they will do; this is why we create the rule of law and political institutions that seek to give a predictability to our affairs. But the problem in international relations is more acute, because there are comparatively fewer restraints on the behaviour of other states.

During the Cold War, mankind for the first time faced a situation whereby it was possible for the actions of a few lonely men, albeit elected to high office by their fellow-citizens or sitting atop massive bureaucracies, to bring about the end of the world through a nuclear war. Even more alarmingly, routine bureaucratic processes which were under the ultimate control of no one person could trigger a chain of ever-escalating action which would place everyone in a situation that none of them wanted to be in, their hand hovering over the red button. Nuclear apocalypse was rational for no-one, and only fear and misunderstanding could ever place either side in the position of initiating it. Unfortunately, there were ample helpings on both sides.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is one such episode with which we are all familiar. Another is Able Archer 83 (it is named for the year, 1983), possibly the most famous and consequential military exercise in history.

Able Archer was an annual military exercise carried out by NATO in Europe. While we are used to thinking of the Cold War as playing out in places like Korea, Vietnam, Angola and Afghanistan, these were all sideshows to the stalemate in Europe. Such were the importance of events there that we still call it the "Cold War" despite the fact it grew hot on every other continent but this one. If there were to be a nuclear war, it would begin here. The Soviets had military superiority here, in the place they had beaten off the Nazi war machine, and U.S. military doctrine recognized this. Henry Kissinger laconically described what would happen in the event of a war in Europe thusly: "First, we lose the conventional war. Then, we lose the tactical nuclear exchange. Finally, we blow up the world".

This blowing up of the world, the nuclear apocalypse, could have come about through this kind of gradual escalation. This is what Able Archer was designed to simulate and prepare for. But the Soviets had another, long-standing fear, dating back to Stalin: that the Americans would simply launch a nuclear strike out of the blue, hoping to knock out most of the Soviets' own weapons and their leadership before a response was possible. In the late 1950s, just before the crisis in Cuba, the KGB had actually arrived at a set date on which they believed such a strike would occur. And they never stopped looking.

In the early 1980s Soviet fears had heightened. This was due to a range of factors, not least their own recent invasion of Afghanistan, which they rightly recognized had raised tensions between themselves and Washington. The election of Ronald Reagan was another factor. The Soviets knew Reagan from the presidency of Gerald Ford, when he had opposed the latter's attempts to draw closer to the Soviets and make peace with them. And now, here he was, ensconced in the Oval Office, fresh from a campaign trail in which he had oozed assertiveness, if not aggression; soon he would deride the Soviets as an "evil empire". Just a few weeks later, he announced Star Wars, an ambitious programme designed to make the U.S. immune to Soviet missile strikes.

These latter two events occurred in 1983, the same year as Able Archer 83. The history of warfare is littered with examples of military exercises being used as cover for the planning of actual aggression; the Arabs had used just such a ruse in the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Israel, and Soviet military doctrine contained plans to do just the same should they feel the need to launch a war. Knowledge of this history made the Soviets sensitive to the danger of a surprise attack masquerading as a peaceful exercise. Since the end of the Cold War, agreements between Russia and NATO mandate that military exercises by either side must allow observers from the other if they exceed a certain size; such is the enduring fear of surprise attack.

Nor could Russians easily forget Hitler's surprise attack against them in 1941, which had been the seminal political event in the youth of many of the country's leaders in 1983. The country's intelligence agencies, which had been blamed for Stalin's failures, were especially sensitive to the possibility; their sensitivity made them liable to exaggerate the threat posed by the Americans. Reagan, of course, never had any intention of launching a first strike; he professed himself shocked the Soviets could ever think that he would. But his belief had a certain naivete, for the Soviets had an understanding of the West that was built by filtering limited information through layers of propaganda and misunderstanding.

Able Archer 83 thus came at a time when the Soviets were especially sensitive to the possibility of a nuclear attack by the United States. The exercise was not how we might imagine a military exercise, with tanks sweeping across fields and infantry manoeuvring, but rather simulated what would happen at the nerve centre of NATO's military operation in the run-up to a nuclear strike. It was initially planned to even involve a co-ordinated disappearance by NATO heads of states into their nuclear bunkers, but this was cancelled out of fear that it would appear too real to the Soviets. But it did involve a simulated increase in the DEFCON level and a dry run of all the targeting, co-ordination and communication that would precede an actual nuclear strike. And all of this was visible to the Soviets.

What made Able Archer 83 different to previous exercises was the realistic nature of the simulation, and the fact that NATO were using a new, coded form of communication that the Soviets were unable to completely understand. Hence, they could see an awful lot of communications whizzing between NATO allies at the military and political level, but they could not understand what was being said. This was a recipe for unease among the Soviets, and fed a tendency for worst-case analysis among the intelligence agencies who did not want to be blamed for failing to anticipate something because of their earlier failure to crack NATO's codes.

Washington knew nothing of Moscow's fears and hence Able Archer ran its complete course. It appears that the Soviets readied nuclear bombers and it is possible they primed their missile forces for an attack. The Soviets would not have waited for the Americans to strike before lashing out themselves; they would have struck when they were convinced the Americans were about to, but before they actually had. Nuclear war is so frightening because there is a premium on striking first, delivering a knock-out blow before your enemy has even stood up. The Soviets never reached this point during Able Archer, and so its significance can be exaggerated. But it had some very real consequences.

President Ronald Reagan would later learn of how the Soviets had reacted to Able Archer, and it would cause him to modulate his policy. While the caricature of Reagan is of a warmonger, Reagan was something different and much rarer: a man who understood the relationship between peace and strength, and that in conditions of adversity, when one has an enemy, the former ultimately flows from the latter. His whole strategy of increasing tensions with the Soviets was predicated on his belief that the Soviets were rational, and that he could push them to make concessions without risking an actual war. He was genuinely shocked to learn that they had reacted to his goading so forcefully, and this influenced his turn towards moderation.

It is worth dwelling as well on what seems to be the main lesson of this event, namely the extreme capacity for destruction that nuclear weapons place in the hands of a vanishingly small minority of human beings. Decisions of war and peace are grave enough, and the intelligence that feeds them scanty and unpredictable enough, to cause concerns at the best of times. But one thing that our anti-nuclear campaigners grasp is the unforgiving nature of the nuclear weapon, the way it allows very little margin for error among those who wield its power. The campaigner's answer, unilateral disarmament, is the incorrect one, even though it seems the best because it is the easiest, as it does not require us to engage in politics or negotiation but simply to denude ourselves. In a world of ever-increasing nuclear capabilities, some answer has to be found to this conundrum: like the terrorist, the God of nuclear apocalypse only has to be lucky once.



In light of Noung's excellent historical overview above, it's worth briefly focussing on the social implications this period had in the UK.

Able Archer 83 was the centerpiece of a period of intense British nuclear paranoia. It was extremely fortunate for the UK government that this event didn't enter the public consciousness until years afterward, such was the degree of public concern. In order to explain this to foreigners, one key fact about the United Kingdom needs to be focused upon - Britain is really, really small.

Popular nuclear paranoia can be seen as going through three main phases over the course of the Cold War. In the early 1950's conventional fission bombs were the perceived primary threat, and neither side had a sufficiently developed arsenal of bombs or ICBMs (first fielded in 1959) to make mutually assured destruction a valid strategy. This was the era of Duck and Cover (1951) when it was demonstrably feasible to survive in the peripheral range of a nuclear strike, and the need for bombers meant there was a potential for preparation and warning. However, it was also an era when radioactivity was a foreign, inexplicable concept with horrifying effects, intensely unsettling. In the later 1950's and throughout the 1960's this evolved into the Cuban Missile Crisis era, typified by On the Beach, when the invention of staged thermonuclear weapons meant nuclear war had become a catastrophic option. At this time the public was adjusting to the idea that war would result in annihilation and fallout. In Britain The War Game(1) (1965), a banned BBC fictionalised documentary, gives a clear insight into popular perceptions of the outcome of a nuclear strike. While horrific, it's notable that The War Game is by later standards reasonably low key, the UK is described as having "approximately 60 nuclear targets" (that's a lot of quite small bombs for a country with an area of 0.1 million square miles) and the outcome of their suggested war was less than globally apocalyptic.

In the 1980's the technology of nuclear deterrence went through a significant upgrade; with the change from a Polaris system of submarine launched missiles (where sub-surface launched missiles were still of dubious reliability, and therefore launching ideally meant the vulnerability of surfacing the submarine), to the sophisticated Trident system of missiles and warheads that was virtually foolproof (finished in 1994). For Britain, this nuclear deterrent would mean a fleet of 4 Vanguard-class submarines, stationed near Glasgow, with one permanently at sea. To say this upgrade scared a portion of the British public would be a gross understatement. The British left, somewhat shell-shocked by PM Margaret Thatcher's tendency towards authoritarian militarism in the Falklands, Northern Ireland and the Iranian embassy siege, was less than comforted by the state's after-exchange agenda.

With a view to the substantial population (in the high 50 millions) and small area of country, along with the massive yield of a staged thermonuclear device, it became common currency to say that only 4-10 strikes would be required to render Britain defeated and virtually uninhabitable. Also, as one of Western Europe's two island nations, it wasn't under the same threat from conventional weapons as continental Europe. The result was the highest density of US military sites outside the traditional German flashpoint. It is only since the end of the Cold War that the rabbit-warren scale of British underground installations is apparent(3). Of the country's litter of abandoned nuclear defence facilities, the most illustrious is Hawthorn a 240 acre site under Corsham in Wiltshire. A fully fledged underground city this was intended as the long term base of The British Government. Now decommissioned this was not militarily sound after 1960, and it is likely that later and more sophisticated bases of equivalent scale are still location-classified. Britain was by the 1980's intended to be the key American outpost in Europe in the aftermath of a nuclear war.

It was against this backdrop that Reagan (elected over a year after Thatcher) began to crank up the tension levels between NATO and the Soviet Union. A portion of the British public became extremely upset. The environmental model of a nuclear winter was only developed in 1981 and this caught on, rapidly rendering Protect and Survive's helpful, mundane advice on food stockpiling and shelter construction a sad joke. The cultural output was formidable - the graphic novel When The Wind Blows, Alan Moore's V For Vendetta and the BBC fictionalised documentary Threads(4) (a timely and far bleaker update of The War Game) all tried to make the outcome of nuclear conflict a tangible possibility.

The Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament sprung from a minor pressure group with a membership of 4000 to a force capable of fielding vast numbers of protesters on the streets of London; the Labour Party - Britain's main opposition - felt the need to publicly wed itself to unilateral nuclear disarmament in order to ride this wave of ill-feeling. It is now apparent that this movement and its members evolved into what became modern environmental activism, explaining the sometimes hysterical tone of their debate and their relic resistance to nuclear energy production (nuclear hellfire is a topic that invites, nay demands, hysteria). At its highpoint, in October 1983 (less than a month before Able Archer 83), this movement managed to lead 300 000 concerned citizens to Hyde Park, the traditional focus of British protest, as part of 3 million brought that day to the capitals of Europe. This was the biggest demonstration the country had seen since the civil unrest of The Depression and it wouldn't be rivaled until the Iraq War and Fox Hunting protests of the Blair era. Young as I was, I was there.

Above Noung describes Reagan in terms of the relationship between peace and strength, but in the context of NATO his role was as first amongst equals. Thus the direct political implications for his allies in Europe are likely to have proved significant in the later choice to apparently "modulate" his tone. To the UK public at large the ramifications of this stick waving were already apparent. Much as was the case in the warm-up to the Iraq War the interpersonal intuition of human beings applied to their leaders (in the case of Iraq people mainly reacted to how Tony Blair's tone felt in their guts) is sufficient to interpret a situation that is supposedly classified, reading it more extensively than the supposedly better-informed commentariat suggested at the time. As was likely the case inside the Kremlin, the British people had built a personal relationship with Reagan's public persona, and were sufficiently concerned by what they saw to prepare for war. Able Archer must have been political dynamite for the Thatcher government, which would have been intimately involved in all activities of NATO. Should these events have passed into the public sphere, it seems unlikely the Thatcher government would have survived (the Westland Affair, a far smaller scandal a few years later, significantly shook the Conservative administration). Thus, while The Cuban Missile Crisis represents the highpoint of nuclear paranoia in the US, the largely unmarked Able Archer events are central to Europe's and Britain's history in relation to The Bomb. This was as high as the temperature of nuclear phobia ever got. It is a bizarre coincidence that while the people remained ignorant of the specific events, their attitude was right - even to the month.

Human beings are very, very good at reading each other... They read your manner, not your actions. Ignore this at your peril.


"Did Gordievsky's reporting bring home the message that the war scare in the Kremlin was serious and that it posed a potential danger of Soviet overreaction? ... Prime Minister Thatcher herself apparently delivered the chilling message to President Reagan, hoping to convince him to moderate his rhetoric and actions... Thatcher publicly urged a shift in policy on 29 September in an address at the annual dinner for the Churchill Foundation Award in Washington, where she knew her remarks would attract media--and White House--attention. Her theme--'we live on the same planet and must go on sharing it'--was a plea for a more accommodating Alliance policy." From A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare by Benjamin Fleishcer, Oleg Gordievsky was the foremost British intelligence source in the KGB.


(1)The War Game can be viewed in its entirety on Google Video, due to certain legal quibbles over evading the banning order I suspect it is now fully in the public domain.
(2)Atomica is a British archive of civil defense material, where Protect and Survive can be read in its entirety.
(3) Subterranean Britannica is a fascinating internet archive of decomissioned British defence facilities, showing the scale of British combat-readiness.
(2)Threads can also be seen on Google Video, no idea why but its been there for 3 years. Eighties lefties probably aren't all that into intellectual property.

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