The 1983 Nuclear War Scare–And Today

Dr. Peter Vincent Pry

The Washington Post (October 24, 2015) reports that, in 1983, the Soviet Union’s paranoid political and military leaders nearly started World War III.  Moscow mistakenly perceived a NATO nuclear exercise as an impending U.S. surprise attack–and almost launched a nuclear first strike. Details of this brush with Armageddon are revealed in the recently declassified report The Soviet “War Scare” (February 15, 1990) written by the blue ribbon President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB).

Now, for the first time, the PFIAB Report on the near nuclear Gotterdammerung of 1983 is available to the public, 32 years later.

Lessons From History

Many analysts assess the 1983 nuclear war scare as more dangerous than the far more famous 1962 Cuban missile crisis–and more instructive.

In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, both sides knew they were in a crisis.  Both sides knew they were operating on the nuclear brink.  So both Washington and Moscow were strongly motivated to find a negotiated solution to defuse the crisis.

But the 1983 nuclear war scare was a one-sided crisis.  Moscow mistakenly believed the U.S. and NATO might be preparing to launch a surprise nuclear attack, while Washington was oblivious to the imminent threat of a preemptive nuclear strike from Moscow, thinking the Russians understood NATO was merely conducting a nuclear training exercise.

Had the NATO exercise continued another 24 hours, Moscow might well have started World War III, and was posturing its forces to make a nuclear strike.  Washington would have been taken completely by surprise.

It took seven years for the U.S. intelligence community and the PFIAB to figure out that during ABLE ARCHER-83, the world stood on the nuclear brink.

Lesson learned?  That during a one-sided nuclear crisis, like the 1983 war scare where only one side perceives a threat, the mismatch in threat perceptions greatly reduces the possibility of a negotiated solution, and greatly increases the possibility of nuclear war.

Yet the 1962 Cuban missile crisis tends to be the overwhelming focus of scholarly research on how a nuclear war might start, and has become a paradigm for conflict resolution and crisis management.

Historians know better, or they should.

Wars can begin deliberately from carefully calculated cold blooded aggression–like World War II.  But wars can also begin by a chain of accidents that escalate out of control–like World War I.  In 1914, no one anticipated that the politics of the Balkans had become so explosive that a single bullet, fired by a terrorist into Archduke Ferdinand, would escalate into a five-year

bloodbath, destroy Europe, and leave millions dead.

More Nuclear War Scares

Perilous nuclear war scares, fueled by paranoia in Moscow and a Russian military doctrine that relies heavily on striking first with nuclear weapons, have happened again, since 1983.

I left the CIA in 1995 to warn my fellow Americans about the continuing–and worsening–nuclear threat from Russia in my book War Scare: Russia and America on the Nuclear Brink.  It was the first and most comprehensive unclassified account of the 1983 nuclear war scare and of subsequent nuclear close calls that continued after the end of the Cold War.  For Example:

In 1991, the Russian General Staff and KGB orchestrated a coup against then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.  They readied Soviet nuclear forces to make a first strike–just in case the United States tried to intervene or take military advantage of Moscow’s self-decapitation.

In 1995, a clerical error failed to notify the Russian General Staff of a scientific missile launch by Norway.   Russia’s military activated then President Boris Yeltsin’s “nuclear suitcase”–the equivalent of the U.S. President’s “nuclear football” that has the codes for authorizing a nuclear attack–and urged Yeltsin to strike first.

Fortunately, Yeltsin refused.

The world was literally one push button away from a thermonuclear holocaust.  It was the closest Moscow has ever come to launching nuclear missiles–five years after the end of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Russia were supposed to be strategic partners.

My book War Scare ends in 1995, when I left the CIA.  Unfortunately, War Scare went virtually unnoticed and was little read.  So I failed in my mission to warn the American people that Russia, despite a phony “strategic partnership” declared by then President Clinton, continued to pose a hair trigger nuclear threat.

Perhaps declassification of the PFIAB Report on the 1983 nuclear war scare will do more to educate Americans on just how alien and unpredictable are our nuclear adversaries.

Failing To Learn From History

The United States continues to walk along the edge of a nuclear precipice, led by a president blind to that fact.

Not only President Obama, but most Washington elites do not appear to fully understand that our nuclear armed adversaries–Russia, China, North Korea, and probably Iran–have worldviews and objectives diametrically opposed to our own.  Their threat perceptions and way of thinking is so incomprehensible to us that it makes their behaviors dangerously unpredictable.  For example:

On September 2, 2013, during a U.S.-Russia naval standoff over Syria, when President Obama threatened strikes to punish Syrian President Assad for using chemical weapons, unanticipated Israeli missile tests in the eastern Mediterranean moved the Russian General Staff to alert their nuclear forces.  It was the day after the 74th anniversary of the start of World War II.

The Russian Defense Ministry convened an international press conference to warn that President Putin had been immediately notified of the mysterious missile launches and the General Staff Central Command Post, that controls Russia’s nuclear forces, went on “high alert.”  Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov–the second highest ranking Defense Ministry official–accused Israel of  “playing with arms and missiles” amidst the explosive Syrian crisis.

Antonov warned Israel to “not play with fire.”  He observed, “Is there any other region more volatile and packed with weapons today?”  He cautioned that Israel’s missile launches could have triggered a war–even a world war involving Russia.  “The Mediterranean is a powder keg,” Antonov warned, “A match is enough for fire to break out and possibly spread not only to neighboring states but to other world regions as well.  I remind you that the Mediterranean is close to the borders of the Russian Federation.”

Finally, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister likened Israel’s Monday morning missile launches to when “a meteorological rocket launch by Norway in 1995 was mistaken as a possible rocket attack on Russia” that nearly started a nuclear war.

The western press ignored or paid scant attention to any of this.  Everyone knows that “nuclear saber rattling” by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran is all for show, right?  Just like in 1983.

Today’s Nuclear Powder Keg

Today, in 2015, U.S. and Russian forces are in the Middle East, fighting in close proximity at cross-purposes.

Russia’s Moskva guided missile cruiser, armed with tactical nuclear weapons, is operating out of Syria’s port of Tartus.  Russia’s Dmitry Donsky, the largest submarine in the world, armed with 20 missiles and 200 nuclear warheads, is capable of striking the United States from its new post in the eastern Mediterranean.

Again, these facts are ignored or but little noted by an oblivious Western media.

The Syrian Electronic Army has made cyber attacks on information systems in U.S. Navy warships.  ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Iran are armed not only with bullets (as was the terrorist who in 1914 started World War I with a pistol) but with cyber warfare capabilities and ballistic missiles.

All three would be delighted if the infidel superpowers annihilated each other in a nuclear war.

What could possibly go wrong?
Originally published on Family Security Matters, November 6th 2015

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