1983: The Brink of Apocalypse
July 10, 2009 1:22 AM   Subscribe

1983: The Brink of Apocalypse -- In 1983 the NATO war exercise Able Archer almost started a nuclear war. Unknown to NATO, just a few months earlier a false alarm had already put the Soviet leadership on edge, and the exercise triggered preparations for a counter attack in the Soviet military. Only a few double agents on each side may have saved the world from nuclear armageddon.

Bonus MAD Documentary: The Brink of Eternity (2, 3, 4, 5).

Of course, if more world leaders listened to Matthew Broderick, none of this would of happened.
posted by empath (32 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
and Stanislav Petrov, the man who saved the world?
posted by Auden at 1:29 AM on July 10, 2009


(linked already in my post) :)
posted by empath at 1:31 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


(jeez, sorry empath, missed it)
posted by Auden at 1:32 AM on July 10, 2009


Previously.
posted by Chuckles at 1:43 AM on July 10, 2009


Previously by moi
posted by lalochezia at 1:47 AM on July 10, 2009


Also see the question: So how close exactly were we to nuclear war?
posted by Chuckles at 1:51 AM on July 10, 2009


The very last number-one song you'd have heard would have been: Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" in the UK; Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon" in Australia and New Zealand; Spandau Ballet's "True" in Canada; and Kenny Rogers' and Dolly Parton's "Islands in the Stream" in the US.

Apocalypse Now That's What I Call Music.
posted by rory at 2:24 AM on July 10, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm reminded of the 1982 sitcom Whoops Apocalypse...
posted by misteraitch at 2:44 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


you had me until "would of".
God I hate that.
/pedant
posted by hypersloth at 2:54 AM on July 10, 2009


There is a crude beauty to military nomenclature. "Able Archer" = "Capable Marksman". Defeating an enemy requires accurate targeting of weaponry. Weapons destroy the enemy. When the enemy is destroyed we will win.

Fallout was a foreign concept.

There would be far fewer wars if every military enterprise had to adopt a name that reflected the essential uncertainty of conflict. If "Operation Enduring Freedom" had been called "Operation Uncertain Objective" that war would be over by now.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:11 AM on July 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Nucular is pronounced Nucular
posted by Acey at 3:53 AM on July 10, 2009


See also: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Luckily for us, smarter men were in charge of things back then.
posted by Acey at 3:59 AM on July 10, 2009


I now have a great desire to play Defcon.
posted by WalterMitty at 4:39 AM on July 10, 2009


If "Operation Enduring Freedom" had been called "Operation Uncertain Objective" that war would be over by now.

Operation Let's Not Fuck This Up.
posted by acb at 4:55 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


1983: The Brink of Apocalypse

I had 1982: With A Bullet, and 1982: Up In Lights. I think the latter had Flock of Seagulls on it.
posted by nonspecialist at 5:20 AM on July 10, 2009


I now have a great desire to play Defcon

I downloaded it after reading this, and Russia just cleaned my thermonuclear clock.
posted by Roman Graves at 5:45 AM on July 10, 2009


In the Summer of 1983, I visited the Soviet Union as a tourist. The most common question I was asked by the people I met was, "Why does the United States want to blow them up?"
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:56 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


About this time in 1983 I was playing my favorite album of that year, with a very appropo song on it.
(Yes, there were better albums that year, but damn, that song seems to stick in my head much more than others.)
posted by chambers at 6:17 AM on July 10, 2009


I had a dream the other night that I was riding in a limo with Putin and Cheney. And I said "The spies probably saved the world from nuclear war in the 80s." And they both nodded gravely. And I was happy to have said something so sage. This validates my dream, thanks.
posted by joecacti at 6:40 AM on July 10, 2009


I love how close they come to blowing us up. They being governments.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:50 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Governments kinda blow.
posted by kathrineg at 7:20 AM on July 10, 2009


What I find astounding, is that much of the nuclear strategy in the Cold War was based on false premises on both sides. Not only that, both sides also knew perfectly well that their premises were false.

NATO's plan was to expect a conventional attack on Western Europe, and if the Warsaw Pact's armoured divisions breached NATO's conventional defences in Western Germany, vaporise them with tactical nuclear weapons, being ready for a gradual nuclear escalation if the Soviets retaliated.

This of course made the astoundingly foolish assumption that the Soviets would send their best troops to certain annihilation, either by conventional or nuclear defences. The Soviets weren't that dumb (and NATO knew). Their plan thus foresaw to start the hostilities with a nuclear "pre-emptive retaliation" (nice euphemism) which would have turned both the conventional and nuclear defences of NATO (together with most of Western Europe) into glowing glass. What kept them from actually carrying out that plan (apart from a modicum of humanity in the Soviet leadership) was the fear of strategic nuclear retaliation by US-based ICBMs.

In my opinion, the menace of such a retaliation (NATO's nuclear guarantee) always was an empty threat. No US president, not even Ronnie Raygun, would have put Topeka at risk to avenge Bonn, Paris, or even London. The French understood this well, and that's why they made sure they kept an independent strategic nuclear retaliation force. However, the Soviets were never entirely certain and Reagan's chest-thumping in particular also made them deadly afraid that the US had their own first strike plans ready.

Looking back, it's almost miraculous that at least Europe wasn't turned into nuclear ashes during the Cold War...
posted by Skeptic at 7:26 AM on July 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


There would be far fewer wars if every military enterprise had to adopt a name that reflected the essential uncertainty of conflict. If "Operation Enduring Freedom" had been called "Operation Uncertain Objective" that war would be over by now.

I like GHW Bush's honesty: "Operation Just 'Cause."
posted by nasreddin at 7:49 AM on July 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


I'm reminded of the 1982 sitcom Whoops Apocalypse..

ahhhhh I haven't seen that in almost 20 years.
I need to find a copy of that if only to see John Cleese as Lacrobat again.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 9:08 AM on July 10, 2009


Skeptic, there is a possibility that the direction of prevailing winds across the European landmass may have contributed to the reluctance of Soviet leadership take any nuclear actions hundreds of miles from the breadbasket of the USSR.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 9:23 AM on July 10, 2009


As I do in all threads like this, allow me to post the brilliant ABC ViewPoint special that followed the original airing of The Day After in 1983. It was meant to be a pragmatic and sober counter to the emotionally draining 3 hours that preceeded it, featuring an all-star panel of guests: Dr. Henry Kissinger, Carl Sagan, Brent Scowcroft, William F. Buckley, Jr., Elie Wiesel, and Robert McNamara.

It's a fascinating back and forth between Reagan-era shills and divergent viewpoints from McNamara and Sagan. This BTW is I believe the first time Sagan said that "The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline , one with three matches, the other with five."

What strikes me about seeing this 25 years later is how just by watching it my body reverts to that very familiar feeling of tense alert coupled with creeping dread that I had pretty much 24 hours a day back then (and I was only 8 years old).

Part 1 starts here
posted by Senor Cardgage at 9:47 AM on July 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Charlie Stross wrote about Petrov for the 25th anniversary last September.
posted by Pronoiac at 1:54 PM on July 10, 2009


Interesting. Today, the Doomsday Clock stands at 5 minutes. That's pretty close, considering it was at 3 minutes in 1984, and 17 minutes in 1991.

Here is the CIA webite report on Operation RYAN, which gives a bit more context to the ABLE ARCHER exercise.

When I was kid growing up in the 80's, I was convinced - utterly convinced - that the world would end by nuclear strike. There was no question, except when. I used to pray every night that we would not die by nuclear fire.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:15 PM on July 10, 2009


Fallout was a foreign concept.

Fallout happens to other people.
posted by Evilspork at 2:54 PM on July 10, 2009


Following up on Skeptic's thought, above, I'm reminded of Lincoln's first recorded speech, the Lyceum address:
At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
If, after it had been confirmed that the Russian's had the H-Bomb in the 50's (or if Truman had followed the advice of a few of the scientists in the Manhattan Project and simply given the Soviets the plans to the A-bomb, setting up MAD immediately and forestalling or avoiding the arms race of the next three decades), what might have happened if a perceptive and radical president had seen the immense cost of building and maintaining a nuclear stockpile and simply drawn a line in the sand at 100 warheads, or none? And to his opponents, who would have cried "But the Soviets have ICBMs!", replied: "And if they ever used them, they would inherit ashes. The preemptive use of nuclear weapons by any country would make them the enemy of the entire free world. Further, a state's use of a nuclear launch against an enemy would avail them nothing - conquest of irradiated wastelands would be impossible. Better to use our treasure to prove the worth of our doctrine to the world, and fight the Soviets economically, rather than racing to arm ourselves against a madman, and in the process losing our own senses."

How different things might have been.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 5:42 PM on July 10, 2009


love it
posted by askdeszign at 6:11 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mr. Mckittrick, after very careful consideration, sir, I've come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:11 PM on July 14, 2009


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