In 1983, a nuclear war game almost turned real. Have we learned our lesson?
The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983
by Marc Ambinder
Simon and Schuster, 384 pp.
How times change. One of the most alarming features of daily life in the United States just a generation ago has seemingly disappeared. Between 1945 and 1991, as Americans went to work, took their children to school, watched ball games, and napped on the beach, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union hummed in the background. Frightening terms like "nonproliferation," "nuclear winter," and "mutually assured destruction" were fixtures of newspapers and the evening news. Schools taught children how to duck and cover. Strategists asked whether the Russians were as afraid of us as we were of them. The world continued turning, but under a shadow. Meanwhile the missiles sat fueled and ready to launch.
Another dusty term from those bygone days is "war game." The mechanics of Armageddon had to be rehearsed and refined. Combat scenarios would be played out, the enemy's moves and countermoves anticipated and trumped. Hollywood made the term famous with the 1983 film WarGames, in which a military supercomputer ceases to distinguish between simulation and reality, and World War III is narrowly averted by a teenage hacker played by Matthew Broderick.
Five months after WarGames was released, a NATO war game called Able Archer 83 nearly led to a real-world nuclear encounter between the United States and the Soviet Union. The National Security Agency has described the years from 1982 to 1984 as "the most dangerous Soviet-American confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis," and Able Archer was that period's most precarious flash point, as the Soviets came to fear that the war game was a cover for an attack by the West. The exercise, which took place between November 7 and 11,1983, was designed to simulate the moment when a conventional war in Europe shifted to a chemical and nuclear one. In the end, Orange (NATO) would annihilate Blue (Warsaw Pact) in a full-scale nuclear attack.
Journalist Marc Ambinder tells the story of Able Archer in The Brink. The book, while not without its faults, is well researched and eerily topical. Tensions with Russia have nearly returned to Cold War levels. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 2011 will lapse in a few years unless it is extended; the multilateral Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is fraying...