“Do you think Soviet leaders really fear us, or is all the huffing and puffing just part of their propaganda?” President Reagan asked his Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Arthur Hartman in early 1984, according to declassified talking points from the Reagan Presidential Library. President Reagan had pinpointed the question central to the 1983 War Scare. That question was key to the real-time intelligence reporting, the retroactive intelligence estimates and analyses of the danger, and it remains the focus of today’s continuing debate over the danger and lessons of the so-called “Able Archer” War Scare.
Some, such as Robert Gates, who was the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence during the War Scare, have concluded, “After going through the experience at the time, then through the postmortems, and now through the documents, I don’t think the Soviets were crying wolf. They may not have believed a NATO attack was imminent in November 1983, but they did seem to believe that the situation was very dangerous.” Others, such as the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, Fritz Ermarth, wrote in the CIA’s first analysis of the War Scare, and still believes today, that because the CIA had “many [Soviet] military cook books” it could “judge confidently the difference between when they might be brewing up for a real military confrontation or … just rattling their pots and pans.”
“Huffing and puffing?” “Crying wolf?” “Just rattling their pots and pans?” While real-time analysts, retroactive re-inspectors, and the historical community may be at odds as to how dangerous the War Scare was, all agree that the dearth of available evidence has made conclusions harder to deduce. Some historians have even characterized the study of the War Scare as “an echo chamber of inadequate research and misguided analysis” and “circle reference dependency,” with an overreliance upon “the same scanty evidence.”
To mark the 30th anniversary of the War Scare, the National Security Archive is posting, over three installments, the most complete online collection of declassified U.S. documents, material no longer accessible from the Russian archives, and contemporary interviews, which suggest that the answer to President Reagan’s question — were the Soviets “huffing and puffing” or genuinely afraid? — was both, not either or.
I while ago I chatted with Nate Jones on this subject: