Exactly what was the deal with Operation Able Archer? I was right smack in the middle of that whole thing (as a soldier stationed in Germany), but I still don’t know what exactly happened except that a number of history books hint that we were actually closer to war in October 1983 than we were during the Cuban missile crisis. –Bill Owen, Cincinnati

It’s a stretch to say we were closer. The Cuban missile crisis was a real showdown over a real issue, and many on both sides feared–and a few hawks hoped–that the confrontation would end in war. In contrast, the Able Archer incident (the pivotal moment came in November, incidentally, not October) was mainly a manifestation of Soviet jitters during the regime’s twilight years. U.S. officials didn’t know anything was up at first and were surprised to learn of the frantic atmosphere in Moscow. Still, the possibility that the world would be vaporized over a misunderstanding was a constant fear during the cold war (I won’t claim the threat has entirely subsided), and in 1983 we drifted closer to the edge than one likes to think.

According to a 1997 CIA analysis by Benjamin Fischer, the incident had its roots in Soviet anxiety over the U.S. defense buildup that began during the Carter administration. The Russians knew they couldn’t compete and feared they would soon be outgunned. Possibly they were also spooked by stepped-up probes of their early-warning intelligence system and other mind games played by the American military starting shortly after Ronald Reagan took office. Whatever the impetus, Soviet leaders persuaded themselves that the U.S. was planning a sneak nuclear attack and in 1981 ordered their spies to look for evidence in an effort incongruously code-named RYAN, the Russian acronym for “nuclear missile attack.”

Soviet nervousness ratcheted up a couple notches in February 1983 as the U.S. prepared to deploy next-generation Pershing II nuclear missiles in West Germany, just a few minutes’ flight from the Soviet Union. In March Reagan denounced the USSR as an “evil empire” and shortly afterward announced the “Star Wars” missile-defense initiative. This was supposed to make the U.S. invulnerable to Russian nukes, the mere thought of which freaked the Soviets. In September the Soviet military, under pressure from higher-ups for responding lackadaisically to U.S. incursions, shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, which had strayed into Russian airspace and been misidentified as a spy plane; all 269 aboard were killed. The U.S. condemned the attack as evidence of Soviet barbarism. Russian leaders, by now thoroughly paranoid, argued (and to some extent may have believed) that the incident was a purposeful provocation and declared that accommodation with the U.S. was impossible. Further complicating matters in October were the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the suicide bombing that killed 241 American military personnel in Lebanon.

With tensions at code-red levels, in the USSR especially, NATO in early November launched its annual military exercise. Called Able Archer 83, that year’s version involved an unusually realistic buildup to a simulated U.S. nuclear strike. The Soviets knew about Able Archer but wondered if something else was afoot, having themselves long planned to use war games as a cover for the real thing and suspecting the U.S. might do likewise. On the evening of November 8 or 9 Moscow reportedly sent a flash telegram to its western European outposts claiming the U.S. had put its forces on alert and was possibly about to attack (we hadn’t and weren’t, Western sources agree) and asking for confirmation.

Meanwhile the Soviets readied their own defenses. The most dramatic press account I’ve seen has Russian fighter-bombers sitting on the runways at peak alert with their engines revving and their nuclear weapons primed. Learning of Moscow’s panic, U.S. national security adviser Robert McFarlane decides on his own to scrap a part of Able Archer that calls for Reagan and other officials to disappear (I guess into bunkers) and instead arranges for the president to be seen in public, reassuring the Russians and defusing the crisis. Good story, but I can find no corroboration of the details and think they’re partly a garbled version of events and partly fantasy.

The truth (for now) appears to be that the Russians raised the alert status of a dozen nuclear fighter-bombers but presumably had them stand down later when no further reports of suspicious U.S. activity emerged. U.S. officials knew nothing of Soviet fears and found out only after the fact following a report from a Russian double agent in London. Some contend that when word finally did reach the White House, Reagan was dismayed to learn the Russians thought him capable of precipitating Armageddon and adopted a more conciliatory approach. Our side doesn’t come off blameless; clearly we had been goading the Soviets. Still, the guys who came closest to pushing the button were the frightened old Bolsheviks running the USSR.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.