- - Wednesday, April 18, 2018


By Taylor Downing

Da Capo Press, $28, 391 pages

Will historians ever acknowledge that the atomic bomb, despite its horrors, stands as the most effective anti-war weapon in history?

The last worldwide conflict ended in 1945. The ensuing years, to be sure, were marred by conflicts of varying intensity — Korea and Vietnam, to name two. But for 73 years, the world has avoided a major-powers conflict of the magnitude that bloodied Europe for centuries.

The most significant stand-off of the era was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a mutual antipathy and exchange of threats that could have resulted in nuclear disaster.

One particularly frightening flash point came in 1983, when events on both sides caused the adversaries to veer toward a showdown that author Taylor Downing, a veteran British TV producer, likens to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

But there was a significant difference. The showdown over Cuba was carried out publicly, with detailed media attention as American forces were mobilized because of Soviet installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

But the severity of the 1983 confrontation, with several exceptions, was known only to a handful of military and intelligence officials.

Both adversaries realized that any conflict carried serious consequence. President Eisenhower’s declared policy was “massive retaliation.” Under Ronald Reagan, the catch words were “mutual assured destruction” — MAD, in defense lingo. Mr. Reagan came into office in 198l as a hard-line anti-communist. He began strengthening U.S. weapons systems. Nonetheless, he sent friendly handwritten notes to Leonid Brezhnev, who then ruled the USSR, urging the relaxation of tensions beginning with the release of political prisoners. Mr. Brezhnev sent back “an icy reply.”

Yuri Andropov, Mr. Brezhnev’s successor, had established his own tough credentials as head of the KGB. The Reagan build-up caused fears that the U.S. would use its superiority to wipe out the Soviet political leadership.

The Soviets began developing powerful new missiles. They also strongly backed proxy “revolutionaries” in locales ranging from Central America to Angola.

Yet despite his rhetoric, one of Mr. Reagan’s first overtures was a proposal to cut nuclear arsenals by 33 percent — a move Moscow rejected. (In retirement, Mr. Reagan would call MAD “the craziest thing I ever heard of.”)

But relations were uneasy from the start. Communication glitches resulted in both the U.S. and the USSR receiving false (and quickly discounted) reports of incoming missiles — errors that contributed to mutual jitters. In both instances, preemptive counterstrikes were barely avoided.

Then the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner that had strayed off course on a flight from Alaska to Seoul, killing 269 persons. The Soviets claimed to have mistaken the commercial aircraft for an American reconnaissance plane. Mr. Reagan denounced the attack as a “crime against humanity.”

As they watched Mr. Reagan’s military buildup, Soviet officers became convinced that what they called “the correlation of world forces” was turning against them. As a psychological warfare tactic, U.S. air and naval probes tested Soviet borders.

Mr. Downing contends that officials in the Reagan administration did not understand the depth of Soviet fears. He ignores a CIA analysis at the time describing Soviet leaders as “pedestrian, isolated and self-absorbed paranoid and fearful of their own people and of a world they believed [was] relentlessly hostile and threatening.” They feared a repetition of the June 1941 German invasion that almost destroyed the USSR.

As tensions mounted, the U.S. began a war-game exercise in which NATO tested its command-and-control procedures in the event of war. In the exercise — Able Archer 83 — no tanks nor troops took the field. But communications did discuss a nuclear deployment.

Responding, Mr. Andropov ordered the KGB and GRU (Red Army intelligence) to begin “Operation RYAN,” an acronym taken from the Russian words meaning “nuclear missile attack.” Officers were ordered to look for signs of an imminent launch of nuclear weapons.

Were blood banks increasing stock piles? Were lights burning late at night in military offices? Was there increased activity around air bases? Mr. Andropov drastically increased Soviet ground forces in satellite European nations.

Oddly, the Soviets ignored reports from a spy they had in NATO headquarters, one Rainer Rupp (“Topaz”) that “there was just a war game, and no more.”

As Mr. Downing states, Soviet leaders historically have chosen to ignore intelligence reports that run counter to their conceptions. Nervous, they began their own mobilization against a feared attack. As Mr. Reagan later wrote, “We were a button away from oblivion.”

Eventually, the fear of mutual oblivion subsided, and arms-control talks over the next years reduced tensions.

Did the existence of nuclear weapons prevent a war? The answer is obvious. No one loves “The Bomb.” But It does have a certain utility.

Joseph Goulden, the author of 19 non-fiction books, write frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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