The Next One Won’t Be A Miss (Rev 15)


Nuclear War: Near Misses

NATO War Games Unwittingly Put Soviets and U.S. on ‘Hair Trigger’ in ’83, Analysis
In December 1988, Jörg 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.

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 Feb. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”

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