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

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In November 1983, Soviet nuclear forces went on high alert. After months nervously watching increasingly assertive NATO military posturing, Soviet intelligence agencies in Western Europe received flash telegrams reporting alarming activity on U.S. bases. In response, the Soviets began planning for a countdown to a nuclear first strike by NATO on Eastern Europe. And then Ab In November 1983, Soviet nuclear forces went on high alert. After months nervously watching increasingly assertive NATO military posturing, Soviet intelligence agencies in Western Europe received flash telegrams reporting alarming activity on U.S. bases. In response, the Soviets began planning for a countdown to a nuclear first strike by NATO on Eastern Europe. And then Able Archer 83, a vast NATO war game exercise that modeled a Soviet attack on NATO allies, ended. What the West didn’t know at the time was that the Soviets thought Operation Able Archer 83 was real and were actively preparing for a surprise missile attack from NATO. This close scrape with Armageddon was largely unknown until last October when the U.S. government released a ninety-four-page presidential analysis of Able Archer that the National Security Archive had spent over a decade trying to declassify. Able Archer 83 is based upon more than a thousand pages of declassified documents that archive staffer Nate Jones has pried loose from several U.S. government agencies and British archives, as well as from formerly classified Soviet Politburo and KGB files. Able Archer 83 vividly recreates the atmosphere that nearly unleashed nuclear war.


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In November 1983, Soviet nuclear forces went on high alert. After months nervously watching increasingly assertive NATO military posturing, Soviet intelligence agencies in Western Europe received flash telegrams reporting alarming activity on U.S. bases. In response, the Soviets began planning for a countdown to a nuclear first strike by NATO on Eastern Europe. And then Ab In November 1983, Soviet nuclear forces went on high alert. After months nervously watching increasingly assertive NATO military posturing, Soviet intelligence agencies in Western Europe received flash telegrams reporting alarming activity on U.S. bases. In response, the Soviets began planning for a countdown to a nuclear first strike by NATO on Eastern Europe. And then Able Archer 83, a vast NATO war game exercise that modeled a Soviet attack on NATO allies, ended. What the West didn’t know at the time was that the Soviets thought Operation Able Archer 83 was real and were actively preparing for a surprise missile attack from NATO. This close scrape with Armageddon was largely unknown until last October when the U.S. government released a ninety-four-page presidential analysis of Able Archer that the National Security Archive had spent over a decade trying to declassify. Able Archer 83 is based upon more than a thousand pages of declassified documents that archive staffer Nate Jones has pried loose from several U.S. government agencies and British archives, as well as from formerly classified Soviet Politburo and KGB files. Able Archer 83 vividly recreates the atmosphere that nearly unleashed nuclear war.

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    Sometimes, I think about how likely it was that the world would have ended when I was a baby. I knew about Stanislav Petrov, of course, and how he essentially saved the world when he decided that the missile launches the computer was reporting to him were in error. He has always maintained that there was no proximate danger, that the Soviets had failsafes in place that would have prevented a full-scale war, but reading Able Archer 83 I'm not so sure. The Soviet command was on high alert due to N Sometimes, I think about how likely it was that the world would have ended when I was a baby. I knew about Stanislav Petrov, of course, and how he essentially saved the world when he decided that the missile launches the computer was reporting to him were in error. He has always maintained that there was no proximate danger, that the Soviets had failsafes in place that would have prevented a full-scale war, but reading Able Archer 83 I'm not so sure. The Soviet command was on high alert due to NATO exercises which they thought might be a preamble to a pre-emptive strike. In this book, there are repeated references to unprecedented actions taken by the Soviets like keeping short-game missiles deployed and moving so they couldn't be destroyed on the ground. In that atmosphere, if Petrov had reported a possible American surprise attack, would the Soviets, knowing they only had a few minutes to decide, have waited for further information? Would they have waited for ground radar, or thought about how only a handful of missiles was odd for an American first strike? Or would they have retaliated against what they thought was an unprovoked attack, and then America would have done the same, and civilization would have burned to ash."The princes, putting the words of their wise men to naught, thought each to himself: If I but strike quickly enough, and in secret, I shall destroy these others in their sleep, and there will be none to fight back; the earth shall be mine. "Such was the folly of princes, and there followed the Flame Deluge." -Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for LeibowitzI would have been fifteen months old. There's a short section at the beginning of this book that makes that point. That the USSR didn't have perfect insight into America's actions and so when they put together Reagan's inflammatory speeches with the changes in the NATO exercises designed to simulate conditions of nuclear war, they could only assume that America might be preparing to execute a decapitating strike under the premise of a war game. And to his credit, when Reagan realized how dangerous the rhetoric was and how close the world had come to doom--how much his reckless warmongering was inflaming the Soviets because they didn't have perfect access to his reasoning--he toned it down. It's hard to even write a review of this, because other than that section, Able Archer 83 is a collection of declassified documents. How do I review a CIA report that indicates that the USSR isn't really that worried by the NATO exercises (oops), or a primary source in Russian? I can't, obviously--that's not their point. But as a book, this is a valuable reminder of how brinksmanship can almost lead to disaster, as does assuming the other side knows your threats are just posturing. I'm alive--we're all alive--because some people made the conscious decision to take a step back. There's a moment when Reagan realizes that technological developments means that on news of a launch, he'll have six minutes to decided what to do. One man, six minutes, and the end of the world. No one should have that power, and the documents collected here are a good explanation of why.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Vheissu

    This book will appeal to subject matter experts, Cold War students, those interested in the Reagan administration, and anybody who thinks that accidental nuclear war or war through misperception are impossible. The work concerns a joint NATO military exercise in November 1983 designated as ABLE ARCHER 83. The exercise provoked a strong Soviet military response that created what some have called the most serious threat of nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. For various reasons, the Reagan This book will appeal to subject matter experts, Cold War students, those interested in the Reagan administration, and anybody who thinks that accidental nuclear war or war through misperception are impossible. The work concerns a joint NATO military exercise in November 1983 designated as ABLE ARCHER 83. The exercise provoked a strong Soviet military response that created what some have called the most serious threat of nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. For various reasons, the Reagan administration and others downplayed the seriousness of the Russian reaction, dismissing it as saber-rattling propaganda. Since the original disclosure of the exercise, historians have debated whether or not the United States was responsible for creating circumstances that warranted Soviet fears of an immediate "decapitation" attack, or whether the Russians cynically blamed the Americans for fear mongering. The book is the result of nearly twenty years of Freedom of Information requests by the National Security Archive and comprises short essays by Nate Jones and reproductions of original, formerly classified documents on the incident. Jones argues that Soviet fears were both real and well-founded, and that the Americans refused to accept the sincerity of Russian fears out of political considerations. In particular, the Americans argued that Soviet reactions to ABLE ARCHER 83 were a propaganda ploy to turn public opinion against the deployment of Pershing II and Gryphon missiles in Europe. The reader can examine the evidence for herself and reach her own conclusions. I find Jones' argument and documentation to be persuasive. As a personal aside, the Soviet and American nuclear war doctrines of the mid-1980s were nothing less than madness. The foundational assumption on both sides was that war would come suddenly and the first aim was to "decapitate" the leadership of the adversary. Weapons on both sides were on "hair-trigger" alert. The whole purpose of the Pershings and Gryphons was to eliminate Soviet leadership in one fell swoop as part of a "first strike." The doctrine of decapitation has remained steadfast in American military strategy, as evidenced by the attempt to kill Saddam Hussein on the first night of the Second Gulf War ("shock and awe"). By decapitating the enemy, experts argued, any retaliation would be uncoordinated and perhaps unlikely at all given the disruption of command and control systems. The insanity of this doctrine is self-evident. If the purpose of a decapitation strike is to limit hostility and save lives, then, once you've eliminated the enemy leadership, with whom do you negotiate? Who signs the peace agreement, and can the guarantor deliver on the terms? Would field level commanders who realize the destruction of command and control channels be less likely to fire their weapons or more likely? Command and control systems on both sides have improved since 1983, but as long as these weapons exist, the probability of their use is greater than zero.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Carl

    A very good collection of primary documents of a secret NATO exercise that the soviets nearly thought was an actual preliminary Nuclear strike by the west and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. It was this "scare" which led both sides to begin talks to reduce their nuclear arsenals. As a treasure trove of material recently declassified ( Most by the National Security Archive-where the editor works) documents that show just how close and how real the threat was and how the United state A very good collection of primary documents of a secret NATO exercise that the soviets nearly thought was an actual preliminary Nuclear strike by the west and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. It was this "scare" which led both sides to begin talks to reduce their nuclear arsenals. As a treasure trove of material recently declassified ( Most by the National Security Archive-where the editor works) documents that show just how close and how real the threat was and how the United states and its allies downplayed the seriousness, mainly due to lapses in communication between allies and lack of access to materials. My only negative is that I wish the 59 page introduction was more of a narrative history and less like an analytical document. A vital source of documents that can lead to a better understanding of just how close the Cold War came to turning terminally hot.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Robert Buelow

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. BORING! There is less than 100 pages in the book, but there is over 200 pages of appendices. It all boils down to the Soviet Leadership almost having to change their underwear. That is the entire book in one sentence. I spent many months on this book because I could only read a few pages at a time.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Meihan Liu

    Excellent archival study of the War Scare of 1983. Able Archer to Reagan is like the Cuban Missile Crisis to JFK. Both needed a brink-like event to realize that opponents could miscalculate and there would be unaffordable consequences if they actually did.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chris Feldhaus

    Terrifyingly relevant.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    A lot of sources, some analysis. Overall, a very valuable work on an underappreciated time.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Dоcтоr

    Excellent research in a very important and timely topic. Now that presidents Trump, and Putin have both acknowledged the future increase of nuclear weapons. This research, and book has also the Soviet, and Warsaw Pact sources comments, which makes this book way more objective than others on the same topic. World has been close to a nuclear war at least three times (1962,1983,1995 which have been publicly admitted), the last one in 1995 was due to a communication error. Someone should really hit w Excellent research in a very important and timely topic. Now that presidents Trump, and Putin have both acknowledged the future increase of nuclear weapons. This research, and book has also the Soviet, and Warsaw Pact sources comments, which makes this book way more objective than others on the same topic. World has been close to a nuclear war at least three times (1962,1983,1995 which have been publicly admitted), the last one in 1995 was due to a communication error. Someone should really hit with this book, the heads of those that want increase the nuclear weapons arsenal. Sure they are easy and quick to build, but they will never be used again (hopefully!), and dismantling them cost a lot of money, and the wast will cause major storage problems.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Donald Hall

  10. 4 out of 5

    Brian Graf

  11. 5 out of 5

    Nick Blackbourn

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Rogers

  13. 5 out of 5

    DDB73

  14. 5 out of 5

    Wes

  15. 5 out of 5

    Dan

  16. 5 out of 5

    Carl Amoscato

  17. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Gomes

  18. 4 out of 5

    Alice

  19. 4 out of 5

    Debbie Cleaveley

  20. 5 out of 5

    Christian Seabaugh

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sandie Chalklin

  22. 4 out of 5

    James

  23. 4 out of 5

    Phil Thomas

  24. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Harbowy

  25. 4 out of 5

    Gabe

  26. 4 out of 5

    Geoffrey

  27. 5 out of 5

    Øystein Brekke

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mike Morgan

  29. 5 out of 5

    Norbert

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lucas

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