We know that during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Middle East War of 1973, the United States and the Soviet Union came dangerously close to a nuclear war. This past week we learned that there was another close call in November 1983.
In March of 1983 President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.” Six months later the Soviets shot down a Korean civilian airliner. That autumn the U.S. started deploying intermediate range missiles in Europe. And that November, NATO began an exercise to test its nuclear weapons command structure.
We now learn this exercise set off deep-seated fears in the Kremlin that it was actually a cover for a surprise nuclear attack by the United States. This is among the revelations of a top secret U.S. Intelligence review, which was just declassified this month. In an extensive report and analysis in the Washington Post, David Hoffman quotes that review as concluding, “In 1983, we may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.”
Hoffman writes that there had been a long running debate over whether the period known as the "war scare" was a moment of genuine danger. This review concludes that for Soviet leaders the war scare was real.
The newly released document titled, “The Soviet War Scare” dated February 15th, 1990, was prepared for the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Among its key findings - Soviet leaders were alarmed by the November NATO exercise, involving forces stretching from Britain to Turkey. That year it contained new features including planes that taxied out of hangars carrying realistic looking dummy warheads.
The Soviets responded with unprecedented reactions of their own. Soviet military and KGB agents everywhere were put on highest alert, and intelligence flights over North Western Europe increased dramatically.
The review concludes that as Soviet doctrine called for pre-empting any NATO attack by striking first, “this situation could have been extremely dangerous.”
Perhaps more significantly, Post reporter Hoffman writes that the war scare was a turning point for President Reagan. He quotes from Reagan’s memoirs; “I think many of us in the administration took for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with the Soviet leaders, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries, but as potential aggressors.”
It was that kind of new thinking on Reagan’s part that helped to end the Cold War.