At the Brink of Nuclear War? The Forgotten Able Archer Crisis of 1983
Three minutes to midnight – in 1983, the infamous »Doomsday Clock« on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists displayed a narrow margin separating us from nuclear war. In fact, this was the experts’ most ominous threat assessment since 1953. The 30 years in between had seen a variety of crises with potentially nuclear dimensions, the prime example being the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. From this perspective, what made the year of 1983 so dangerous? And why has almost everybody heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis, while the terms »1983« and »Able Archer« will hardly ring familiar to most people? Taking place in November 1983, Able Archer was a NATO command post exercise simulating the transition from conventional to nuclear war against the Soviet Union. At the time, however, Moscow was uncertain whether this was merely an exercise – and commenced mobilizing parts of their own nuclear arsenal. Even today, historians and contemporaries are still debating how dangerous those days in November really were. In various respects, Able Archer remained an invisible crisis devoid of spectacular images or public saber-rattling. However, in order to correctly assess its significance, we have to view Able Archer as the climax of an entire series of crises that dominated much of 1983: The change of leadership in Moscow and Washington, the Soviet downing of a South Korean passenger plane, and the potentially disastrous glitch of the Soviet early warning system against a nuclear attack. This presentation revisits the tense, paranoid superpower relationship that marked the early »Second Cold War«, taking the audience back into a world of strategic doomsday scenarios, out-of-control technologies, and intelligence services, which had long transcended their roles of mere executors of policies. At the same time, open controversies regarding the Able Archer crisis will be pinpointed and long-held assumptions will be questioned.
Klaas Voß studied History, Political Science and American Studies in Hamburg and the United States and completed his doctoral degree at the University of Hamburg. Currently, he is preparing a study on the reintegration of veterans in postwar societies. Selected publications: Washingtons Söldner. Verdeckte US-Interventionen im Kalten Krieg und ihre Folgen (2014) and Erbe des Kalten Krieges (ed. with Bernd Greiner, Tim B. Müller, 2013).