When I was just a teenager I can remember thinking that because I lived in New York City, I am going to one day, perhaps soon, witness a bright flash of light and be already dead before I get to hear the enormous roar that is right behind that blinding light. So far, years later, I still walk the streets of New York City, and it is as intact and full of life, even more so, as it was years ago.
However, author Taylor Downing book, 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, gave me the chills as he described how I, and millions other, almost got fried.
This segment from his prologue says it all: “This [book] highlights…the story of the 1983 war scare when the Soviets convinced themselves that the United States was preparing to launch a nuclear first strike against them… It shows how minor and unpredictable events can rapidly escalate into major confrontations. And it climaxes with a night on which the Soviet nuclear arsenal was put on to maximum alert, when missiles were deployed to action stations… If these missiles had been fired it would have prompted a nuclear exchange that would have destroyed much of North America, most of Asia, probably all of Europe. The fallout would have brought down a nuclear winter that would have covered Earth for years or decades to come. The death toll would have been counted in the hundreds of millions, dwarfing every conflict in human history."
How did this nightmare come about? Taylor Downing gives us a riveting account in this book, but first we have the two men who held the fate of the world in their hands: President Ronald Reagan of the United States of America and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov.
Reagan had recently turned 70, then the oldest man to run for president, and Andropov was 68, when General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, died on November 10, 1982, and he was chosen by a handful of elderly men who ran the Soviet Union. Andropov also, like with President Reagan, was the oldest man elective to hold this leadership position.
Most of world knew a great deal about President Reagan: Radio, movie and television star; two-term Governor of the great American state of California, and finally, President of the United States of America. And he was one of the loudest out spoken voice against “godless Communism,” and the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union.
By contrast, outside of Russia, few knew anything about Andropov. Author Downing points out that “In the 1970s and 1980s, Western observers of events behind closed doors of the Politburo and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were known as Kremlinologists.”
These “experts” were taken aback when “a pale, stooping elderly man in heavy glasses stepped forward.”
However, Andropov was as strong as Reagan in his deeply held belief in Marxism/Leninism. He joined the Young Communist League at the age of sixteen. Then Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler was about to ravage Russia and most of Europe. Andropov rose quickly through the ranks, until in May 1967 he was appointed head of the famed, and deeply feared KGB, a huge organization with perhaps a half a million employees. It controlled spy missions both domestic and worldwide.
In that sense it was wise for the master spymaster to keep a low profile which Andropov did until he was suddenly thrusted into the world spotlight.
One of the problems that soon faced the aging rulers of Russia was Ronald Reagan. In fact, as I read this book, I felt that the author was clearly blaming Reagan for almost blowing up the world. The author writes, “The Soviet leadership was looking at a President who had spent much of his life mounting an anti-communist crusade and whose ideology was deeply opposed to theirs.”
What scared them the most was first, Reagan’s rearming. Writes Downing, “He planned for total defense spending from 1982 to 1989 to increase to $2.7 trillion. This amounted to the biggest peacetime build-up of military spending in American history”
Added to that was the placing in Europe of the Pershing 11 missile that could carry a nuke to the windows of the Kremlin in only six minutes. And to top it off, President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, quickly dubbed “Star Wars” by the press. The aim was to put in place ways to shoot down any missile coming from anywhere in the world. This idea included station lasers in space to kill the missiles before they reenter the earth.
At this point the Russian economy was a disaster. Food and general goods and services were a joke. There was no way that the old men in the Kremlin could compete with America and Reagan knew it, and the old men knew it.
Andropov and his close associates also came to the belief that what Reagan was really up to was a first strike against them. He had already said publicly that he thought that Mutual Assured Destruction(MAD) was “crazy.” The Pershing 11, which was introduced in Europe to counter the Soviet’s SS 22, really kept them up at night. They were under the opinion that it was a first strike weapon, which confirmed their belief that Reagan wanted to “decapsulate” the leadership of the Soviet Union. They became so obsessed with the idea that they started Operation RYaN. It was a human intelligence operation to keep a sharp eye on any movement in the West that would indicate that the USA was about to launce a first strike against them.
This all came to a head in November 1983 with a war game by NATO titled Able Archer 83. By this time, Andropov was very ill and was being treated at the Kuntsevo Clinic twenty miles out of Moscow. And, like Reagan, he had nearby the “football” a briefcase that contained the codes need to launch nuclear weapons.
As the war game became more alarming, “At his bedroom in the Kuntsevo Clinic, a military aide sat beside Andropov with the chegget (“football”) ready to send out the nuclear launch codes. Marshal Ogarkov, one of the men authorized to launch nuclear weapons, settled into the central command bunker outside of Moscow for the night.”
The KGB and the GRU was sending out “Super Urgent Flash” telegrams to “their people around the world that the situation was now critical, and that the NATO exercise was in all likelihood preparation for sudden nuclear attack.”
Their double agent West Germany Rainer Rupp, who had penetrated the upper level of NATO headquarters, was asked to keep his eyes open.
Writes Downing, “Rupp could see that there was absolutely no gearing up for war at NATO headquarters. The war game was just that.” And he was able to send this important message back in time to the leadership in the Kremlin
Notes Downing, “A paranoid leadership could never trust one source that stood out against the rest. But almost certainly Rainer Rupp played a small part in helping to save the world from a nuclear holocaust.”
The old men in the Kremlin finally stood down, along with all their missiles, submarines, and aircrafts all loaded and ready to launch.
So, we can now see that Reagan and his associates had no idea that Andropov and his associates were so scared to death of Reagan. And Reagan later confided to an associate that he “shuddered” when he found out that his words and taunts almost ended human life on this planet as we know it.
President Trump, and every President from this moment on should read this book.
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