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How Did the US and USSR Never Go to War?



Sometimes, it’s really surprising that the U.S. and Soviet Union did not actually go to war. This story about Soviet paranoia in the face of Reagan’s increasing aggressiveness is quite alarming really.

A nuclear weapons command exercise by NATO in November 1983 prompted fear in the leadership of the Soviet Union that the maneuvers were a cover for a nuclear surprise attack by the United States, triggering a series of unparalleled Soviet military re­sponses, according to a top-secret U.S. intelligence review that has just been declassified.

“In 1983, we may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger,” the review concluded.

That autumn has long been regarded as one of the most tense moments of the Cold War, coming after the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean civilian airliner in September and as the West was preparing to deploy Pershing II intermediate-range and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe in November. But there has been a long-running debate about whether the period known as the “war scare” was a moment of genuine danger or a period of bluster for propaganda purposes.

The review concluded that for Soviet leaders, the war scare was real, and that U.S. intelligence post­mortems did not take it seriously enough.

Soviet leaders were particularly alarmed about the NATO exercise, known as Able Archer, carried out in early November 1983 involving forces­ that stretched from Turkey to Britain. Conducted annually to practice the procedures involved in the run-up to a nuclear conflict, the exercise had some new wrinkles that year, including planes that taxied out of hangars carrying realistic-looking dummy warheads, the review said.

It goes on to discuss the paranoia of the aging Yuri Andropov and the real fear the Soviet leadership had of Reagan’s craziness. I don’t know, maybe calling other nations names like “an evil empire” or “the Axis of Evil” does not actually help keep your nation safe, who could know. As much as I despise Reagan, at least he had the wherewithal to see that the Soviets were actually scared and sense an opening to thaw relations as the 80s went on, something that deeply disturbed the hardliners among his advisers.

In hindsight, it really seems amazing that at some point these two nuclear nations didn’t start annihilating each other, whether in 1962 or 1983 or some other point. There were so many opportunities for everything in the Cold War to go horribly wrong.

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