The most dangerous year


Last updated 7/4/2023 at 12:20pm

It was, as the Duke of Wellington described the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” The series of events that went down 40 years ago, in 1983, carried much bigger potential consequences than any single battle ever did. The stakes were the continued existence of humanity.

Had a couple of decisions gone another way, had individual men not kept a cool head under pressure, it might well have been lights out for the human race.

Most folks believe that the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to nuclear war was in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those were some excruciating and dangerous weeks, with tension slowly ratcheting up before being defused by a backchannel deal cut between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. But the events of 1983 were a much more near-run thing than the Cuban Missile Crisis — and very few Americans remember anything about them.

The Cold War was approaching a fatal freeze in 1983. The old KGB mossbacks who ran the USSR were leading a country that had fallen far behind its American adversary technologically and economically. Their war in Afghanistan was not proving swift and short. They faced an American president, Ronald Reagan, who had just called them “the focus of evil in the modern world.” The Americans were launching the Strategic Defense Initiative and were planning deployment of Pershing II missiles to Europe.

The Soviets were convinced that the United States planned a nuclear first-strike. Having grown up in the shadow of the near-fatal German surprise attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Operation Barbarossa, the terminally ill Yuri Andropov and his Politburo comrades were not about to get caught by surprise again.

Andropov initiated Project RYAN, a secret intelligence-gathering program to detect an American nuclear first strike.

America’s political, diplomatic, and military leaders never fully grasped the Soviet mindset — they knew that they weren’t planning a first strike; surely the Russians understood that…

When Korean Airlines flight 007 strayed into Soviet airspace on September 1, fighter pilots shot the airliner down, killing 269 people on board. The shootdown confirmed American belief that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” The Soviet leadership thought the Americans were setting up a pretext for war.

A few weeks later, on September 26, a Soviet early warning system stationed outside of Moscow picked up the launch of first one and then four more missiles from the United States, headed toward Russia. Duty officer Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov suspected that the computer detection was a false alarm. A five-missile launch made no sense. A real nuclear first strike would have to be overwhelming to prevent retaliation. Petrov mistrusted the reliability of the satellites involved, and there was no visual confirmation. He stuck with his analysis, which was a good thing because Soviet doctrine called for a launch-on-warning response. Had Petrov made a different “better safe than sorry” calculation, a full nuclear exchange would have been the result — and that would have been that.

It turned out that the false alarm was triggered by an anomalous reflection of light off of high-altitude clouds. Whew…

In November 1983, NATO launched its regular Able Archer military exercise in Europe. They had made some changes to make the exercise more realistic, including scenarios around deployment of nukes — and Soviet intelligence read that as meaning that the exercise might well be a cover for a real attack. Soviet forces went on high alert. Had NATO responded in kind, dangerous escalation all the way to war was only a few steps away.

Lt. Gen. Leonard H. Perroots, assistant chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, recommended that NATO wait till the exercise wound down, to see if the Soviet alert was based on Able Archer. His boss General Billy M. Minter concurred, and tensions ratcheted down.

The close calls of 1983 probably actually helped Reagan and Premier Mikhail Gorbachev bring about a thaw later in the ’80s. Nobody wanted to walk that close to the edge again.

Now, 40 years later, with the use of nukes in Ukraine a real possibility, we would do well to remember that confirmation bias can lead to catastrophic misjudgments — and to pray that once again smart, cool people are in a position to think twice before letting the missiles fly.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

Author photo

Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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