Okay, the problem with starting a series of posts on one incident is that in the meantime other stuff happens. Though I was intent on not going along with the “news cycle,” I’m going to cut my posts on the Spring Valley High School SRO assault on a female student short. The two remaining posts, about American football coach idolization and the lack of mental health support in this country will have to wait until another time.
A few days ago I came across an article about the state of the Cold War in 1983. I can’t find the particular article anymore, but it turns out that in 2013 many similar news articles were published. What am I talking about? Documents that until recently were classified show that, thanks to America, the world came extremely close to World War Three in November 1983.
And Americans had no clue.
In 1981 and 1983 there were two enormous peace demonstrations in the Netherlands, aimed at blocking America from stationing four hundred something additional nuclear missiles in western Europe, including in the Netherlands. I participated in the second one, in The Hague. Reading these articles makes me furious all over again. I can’t stop thinking about them; it’s really disturbing information.
We in the Netherlands and others in Europe were acutely aware that the Reagan administration’s war games were bringing us to the brink of nuclear war, closer than we’d ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. And the Americans were talking about it as if it was just strategy and theory, blithely clueless that their placement of missiles in our countries in Europe made us the first targets.
And sure enough, it turns out that the combination of Reagan’s rhetoric about a possible “limited nuclear war,” the “evil empire” and leaving communism “on the ash heap of history,” combined with the planned placement of those additional nuclear weapons around our European necks and the execution of the most realistic NATO practice run for nuclear war yet, had many of the Soviet leaders convinced that America was about to strike, and that therefore the Soviet Union should strike preemptively.
So what happened? When Reagan came to power in 1981, he immediately began upping the ante in the Cold War. The Russians were worried and sent spies to look for any signs that the rhetoric was more than that. The KGB agents were to look for increased activity in various areas as a sign that America was preparing for an actual first strike. And they found it.
Able Archer was the name of a large-scale NATO exercise that apparently took place every year. Vast numbers of ships, troops and planes were brought to Europe and the northern seas to practice a pretend nuclear threat. Only this time, in November 1983, the exercise was way more realistic than before. There were exercises under radio silence, code messaging was more sophisticated, Margaret Thatcher in England and Helmut Kohl in Germany were on the phone with the White House situation room, all in this elaborate war game that went all the way to DEF-CON 1, only stopping short of actually pushing the red button.
The Russians seriously thought that America was getting ready to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons under the guise of Able Archer and they were getting ready to attack preemptively. Andropov, the Soviet leader, was convinced, but fortunately a few KGB agents or double agents stationed long-time in the west had a better understanding of the situation and were able to hold things off. I’d like to think that our demonstrations in Europe helped in some small way–that we made enough noise telling America and the USSR both that western Europe had enough of Reagan using us as pawns in his strategy games and that America didn’t speak for us.
The threat subsided when Able Archer came to an end in December.
The next year a report came out describing the Soviets’ worries, though not quite to the extent that is now known, and the Americans were genuinely surprised and pretty damn dismissive, doubting the Soviets could seriously believe the Americans would ever strike first. After all, the United States were the good guys.
Not long after, Reagan backed off a little and when Gorbachov came to power in the Soviet Union things really relaxed; the Berlin Wall came down (a little faster than Gorbachov intended, but it was still his initiative) and America has ever since patted itself on the shoulders for having “won” the Cold War.
Here in America, most people still believe that Reagan’s “tough talk” brought the Soviet Union to its knees. In reality it’s mostly pure luck that Reagan and his cronies didn’t bumblefuck Europe into oblivion.
And here’s what I still find disturbing: even now, in all the articles that pop up when I google the Cold War in 1983, what is described is the possible nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Europe is only mentioned as an aside, that vague place where ships were moved to and where additional nuclear missiles were planned. Missiles that could hit Russia five minutes after being launched from, oh say, the Netherlands. Therefore the Soviets also had missiles aimed at us in the Netherlands, that could destroy us in five minutes.
It’s clear to me from the writing in these many articles–articles from major national newspapers to smaller digital sources–that America still doesn’t get it. Europe is where the “limited nuclear war” that Reagan talked of would take place. Not America, where people voted for the guy. No, in America the second-rate movie actor turned president would have stood in his situation room with his buddies, watching the cloud rise on a screen, no doubt with a suitably grim expression–or, as we know now he would have, with his jaw dropped to the floor in complete surprise–and he and Andropov would have been on the phone to stop it before things got really “out of hand”.
One of the articles (don’t make me find it among all of them) concludes that in the early 1980s America had not learned as much from the Cuban Missile Crisis as they should have. I would argue that America still hasn’t.