Over the weekend I read Taylor Downing, 1983: the world at the brink.
It gave me new perspectives on the dimly sensed fear of apocalypse that I remember from my youth. In the early 1980s the Cold War rose to a late crescendo as Ronald Reagan poked the Russian bear into vengeful fury. It is a tribute to 1983: the world at the brink that the complexity of motivation of Reagan, and indeed Chernenko, Gorbachev and the double agent spies on all sides are revealed through a narrative that is clear and takes many points of view.
At the heart of the book is the nearly apocalyptically fatal miscalculations provoked by the NATO war game exercise, Able Archer 83. Buried deep in their compound near Brussels the NATO generals had no idea that their simulation and practice of nuclear launch protocols was perceived by the USSR, threatened by Reagan’s rhetoric, strategic posture, nuclear missiles in Europe and Star Wars strategic defence initiative which seemed to make a USA first strike nuclear launch feasible, by the paranoid and ill Politburo as a cover for a real nuclear launch against Russia. In response to Able Archer, and signs that launch protocols were being initiated, the USSR put its entire nuclear missile armoury on combat alert.
The world has never been closer to a nuclear winter. Downing makes clear that it was ultimately moments of human intuitive decision-making that helped hold the world back from racing over the cliff.
One American military officer stationed in Germany observed the heightened military activities of the USSR forces, as they prepared to counter a nuclear strike. If he had escalated in response, the Russians would have had their suspicions confirmed, and a nuclear miscalculation unlikely. But his intuition called for calm, and his peaceful response helped to prevent a crisis.
A few weeks prior to the crisis, a Russian military official was in charge of the nuclear missile warning systems he had helped to design. They monitored the USA launch sites, and would provide warning of any flash indicative of a launch. To his horror on a shift when he was responsible, he system warned the USSR: LAUNCH! LAUNCH LAUNCH!
With the prospect of nuclear annihilation in minutes, the Soviet official sensed something was wrong He shut down and rebooted the system to check for errors Still it screamed Launch! And then once more. Still he relied on human intelligence, not artificial intelligence.
He was right. The warning was triggered by a flash of light in the atmosphere. But being right did not save our practitioner of the ordinary virtues. He was drummed out of his job, and pushed into a pokey flat. All because he did not follow procedure.
But he was right. Despite all his losses, he maintained his dignity. In his home he showed his rare visitors to a globe in a sculpted hand. On the globe was written an inscription from Kofi Annan: “To x who saved the world.”
Ordinary virtue indeed.