Inescapable, apocalyptic dread: The terrifying nuclear autumn of 1983

It was the tensest, most dangerous part of the Cold War — and that autumn, grownups were as scared numb as we were

Published September 29, 2013 10:59AM (EDT)

A still from the movie "The Day After"
A still from the movie "The Day After"

It happens every autumn. I’m walking down the street and it wells up fast, triggered by a first chill in the air, some foliage, maybe a doorstep pumpkin. In that instant returns the knotted stomach and debilitating dread of the apocalyptic autumn of 1983.

That was the season my slice of generation, on the younger side of X, learned about things worse than death. Things like flash burns and thermal radiation and stillborn mutants. It was the season we acquired some of the habits of the wartime mind. We wondered if lights in the night sky were planes or missiles, and whether the school fallout shelter stood a chance. The autumn of ’83 was also a semester of children’s thermonuclear ethics. If it happens in the afternoon, do we run toward home, or away from the city and the blast? If it happens at night, do we let our parents huddle over us in the basement, or do we stand on the rooftop, chests forward, praying the first shock wave dematerializes our family without pain?

In my nightmares, I always ran, and the blast always overtook me. I could never get out beyond the red circle drawn on the maps left on our doorstep by Boston’s Freeze activists. Still I studied them. I kept my collection of maps and pamphlets hidden like a stash of pornography. Attempts by adults to calm us only deepened the terror. It was obvious their reassurances were hollow. It was for them, not us, that the American Broadcasting Corporation set up 1-800 panic hotlines for the Thanksgiving week airing of “The Day After.” Grownups were as scared numb as we were that autumn, which seemed to be replaying the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.

By definition, autumn forebodes a coming darkness. Death’s answer to spring, a poet called it. The emotional link between autumn and nuclear fear was forged for the previous generation during the Septembers and Octobers of 1961 and 1962, when back-to-back crises in Berlin and Cuba nearly trip-wired WWIII. Our nuclear autumn was condensed into those three months in 1983, covering a host of landmark Cold War events now at their 30th anniversary mark. If our generations still think about nuclear war, we likely share the expectation that nuclear crisis and war, should it come, will occur during the months of September, October and November. How many of us, I wonder, tensed up when September 2013 opened with American threats against Damascus and Russian warships steaming toward the Mediterranean?

The nuclear autumn of 1983 was arguably the tensest and most dangerous season of the entire Cold War. It involved at least two close calls. It was bookended by a diplomatic crisis and a destabilizing missile deployment. The popular culture was drenched to the bone in nuclear dread — a dread so deep it deeply affected the political development not just of third graders like me, but also of two guys named Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Both men entered 1984 with a new determination that the previous year be remembered as the darkness before dawn.

The roots of autumn ’83 are deep and tangled, but it’s enough to trace them back to the détente administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. It was during this period of relatively slack Cold War tension that an opposition formed to the intellectual-strategic foundations of détente — a recognition and acceptance of nuclear stalemate, of Russian parity, of deterrence and mutual assured destruction. This opposition was built around three men: the veteran defense official Paul Nitze, the physicist Edward Teller and the academic strategist Albert Wohlstetter. They established a camp on the margins of the defense debate that rejected the view that nuclear weapons could prevent a superpower conflict, not triumph in one. They found early acolytes and enablers among some familiar names: Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld.

This group established the legendary “B Teams” that provided “independent” intelligence on Soviet power and intentions during the 1976 presidential campaign. Contradicting the CIA, the B Teams maintained the Soviets were close to achieving first-strike capability and that an arms build-up was necessary, accompanied by a more aggressive foreign policy. The effect was to push Jimmy Carter’s campaign to the right on defense. After the election, the B Teamers regrouped in the form of the Committee on the Present Danger, a Cold War version of the Project for a New American Century. The Committee agitated against Carter’s arms control efforts and hyped its alarmist interpretation of Soviet designs. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, these nuclear neoconservatives finally assumed control of U.S. nuclear strategy, budgets and launch codes. The public would soon be blindsided by their hawkish views. Those who had been reading their manifestos in journals like Foreign Policy were not so surprised. Hans Morgenthau warned as early as 1976 that Teller and company was trying to “conventionalize nuclear war” out of ignorance about “the objective conditions under which nuclear weapons forces us to live.”

They came to power tossing around basketball terms like “full-court press.” Top Reagan officials declared nuclear war to be imaginable and winnable. You could fill an entire book with the Strangelovean rhetoric of the first two years of Reagan’s term. In fact, Robert Scheer did just that in his contemporary 1983 account, “With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War.” The title of the book refers to an interview Scheer conducted with Reagan’s deputy secretary of defense for Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces, a former Boeing project manager named T.K. Jones.

“If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it,” Jones told Scheer. “Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top. It’s the dirt that does it.”

Jones borrowed this civil defense concept from the Soviets, who told rural citizens to dig a hole and hide during a nuclear war. This was very strange. It was also very revealing: The neocons were selling their vision of Soviet supremacy largely on the fantasy of a sophisticated Soviet civil defense program — which consisted of little more than dirt-covered doors.

T.K. Jones’s breathtakingly idiotic ideas about nuclear war did not stop with civil defense. He also believed America would recover from a nuclear war within a few years. The idea that the U.S. could “bounce back” from a nuclear exchange was actually quite widespread in Reagan’s Washington. Reagan’s FEMA distributed leaflets to municipal governments stating, “With reasonable protective measures, the United States could survive nuclear attack and go on to recovery within a relatively few years.” His appointee to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency described nuclear war as “a destructive thing, but still in large part a physics problem, possible for any society to survive.” In the spring of 1982, Reagan personally proposed a $4 billion civil defense plan for evacuating major cities and housing refugees in above-ground rural “shelters.” Local officials across the country from Ed Koch down scoffed at claims the plan would save 80 percent of the U.S. population. It was as if nobody in government knew that modern thermonuclear weapons made the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs look like firecrackers by comparison.

Senior officials publicly discussed plans to execute and survive a nuclear conflict involving hundreds if not thousands of these warheads. When defense secretary Caspar Weinberger appeared before the House Budget Committee, he described the goal of ballooning Pentagon budgets as “expand[ing] the U.S. capability for deterring or prosecuting a global war with the Soviet Union.” Richard Pipes, the senior Sovietologist on Reagan’s National Security Staff, criticized those who questioned the notions of “victory” and “defeat” in a nuclear exchange. In April of 1982, two months before a million people gathered in Central Park to protest Reagan’s policies, Pipes put the current probability of nuclear war at 40 percent. About this looming prospect, Reagan’s secretary of energy said, “I want to come out of it number one, not two.”

To be human during all of this was scary enough. To be a child was something worse. By 1983, the culture was permeated with images of mushroom clouds and missile launchers. Activists knocked on doors and worked the streets with literature about shock waves, radiation sickness and nuclear fire. Nuclear themed TV programming, including a number of “very special episodes,” became common. So did the interruptions. “This is a test” announcements, once rare and almost always at night, started popping up at odd hours of the day. Not knowing if it was a test or a war, my heart stopped at every one of those beep-glitch-gurgles, a noise the next generation would learn as the harmless sound of a dial-up Internet connection.

Administration rhetoric was just one aspect of its “full-court press.” Behind the scenes, Reagan’s generals made bold changes to U.S. and NATO military posture and tactics. U.S. forces were instructed to make provocative maneuvers near Soviet territory. In his profoundly mordant history of the arms race, “Arsenals of Folly,” Richard Rhodes describes the “forward strategy” policy of Navy Secretary John Lehman. It involved aggressive moves by U.S. warships and planes close to, and in some cases beyond, Soviet air and water space. These moves were at their most reckless in March of 1983, when they timed to a major NATO war game that involved realistic touches such the Queen of England drawing up and delivering an address to her subjects as the bombs begin to fall.

This wasn’t the best moment for Reagan to announce his Strategic Defense Initiative in contravention of the ABM Treaty of 1972, one of the cornerstones of nuclear stability. Yet that’s what he did.

All of this is the necessary background to understanding 1983 as the calendar entered the traditional season of nuclear crisis. Autumn ’83 started early and dramatic: On September 1, 1983, a Russian MiG shot down a Korean passenger jet that wandered off course deep into Soviet air space. The Kremlin was already in a state of high anxiety and confused about U.S. intentions, so much so they had recently implemented something called Operation RYAN to better anticipate a NATO first strike. KGB agents in Western countries were told to be on the lookout for activity suggestive of an imminent attack, such as unusual movements by key personnel, or spikes in activity around blood banks. One Western diplomat returned from Moscow around this time and described the mood as “pre-war.”

Then, on the night of September 26, a Russian radar bunker outside Moscow received data that appeared to show several missiles just launched from America’s silo-rich heartland. Protocol dictated that the officer in charge report the blips up the chain of command, which then terminated in the deeply paranoid and dying ex-KGB chief, Yuri Andropov. But the bunker officer in charge that night, Stanislav Petrov, suspected something was wrong. The number of missiles was too low for a first strike. So Petrov ignored protocol and did nothing. Had he been wrong, his decision would have cost the Soviets precious response time. But he was right. The radar had picked up unusual reflections of late afternoon sunlight off cloud cover. When the event came to light in the mid-1990s, Petrov was dubbed “The Man Who Saved the World.” Given the sweaty trigger-fingers and mental states in the Kremlin, the grand title could very well be justified.

Tensions mounted into October. On Columbus Day, Reagan and his joint chiefs celebrated the discovery of the New World by viewing scenes of its nuclear destruction. They gathered at Camp David for a private screening of the rough edit of “The Day After,” a dramatization of nuclear war set to air on ABC the following month. The film was the high-water mark of nuclear popular culture. It depicted, in gruesome detail, the effects of a nuclear attack on the city of Lawrence, Kansas. Viewed today, it is hard to escape the B-movie aspects of the $7 million production directed by Nick Meyer, who arrived on set fresh off of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” In the context of the time, the film was beyond harrowing. Reagan himself made a rare emotional admission in his diary following the screening. “It is very effective and left me greatly depressed,” he wrote. “My own reaction: we have to do all we can to [avoid] a nuclear war.”

The “full-court press” that made such a war more likely, however, was already in motion, and gaining momentum. Two weeks after Reagan’s viewing of “The Day After,” the president was debriefed on the Pentagon’s new and expanded strategic plan identifying no less than 5,000 “decapitation” targets inside the Soviet Union. The new blueprint for World War III included about-to-be-deployed medium-range Pershing missiles capable of reaching Moscow in 10 minutes. The second half of the debriefing concerned NATO’s upcoming war game, called ABLE ARCHER. The exercise, conducted between November 2 and 11, was the most elaborate war game in alliance history. In an eerie echo, the game scenario involved a nuclear escalation beginning with Russian arms shipments to Syria.

U.S. officials knew the Soviets were on the lookout for unusual behavior as part of Operation RYAN, and they cancelled Reagan’s involvement in the war game at the last minute. But it remained realistic enough to put the Kremlin in a panic. Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl were both relocated out of their respective capitals. Troop and bomber wing movements were intricate beyond previous games. Together with the rapid movements of senior military figures out of Washington, all of this put the Soviet leadership into full-on freak-out mode. They knew that both sides had plans to cloak the early stages of a preemptive attack in a drill. At one point, Soviet air forces loaded tactical nukes onto fueled-up long-range bombers prepared to strike West Germany.

Richard Rhodes, our greatest nuclear historian, concludes of ABLE ARCHER 83:

[The exercise was] the culminating and most dangerous misunderstanding in that year of misunderstandings… Inadvertently blundering close to nuclear war in November 1983, [and] not the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, was the return on the neoconservatives’ long, cynical, and radically partisan investment in threat inflation and arms-race escalation. During the Cuban crisis, both sides were at least aware of the danger and working intensively to resolve the dispute. During ABLE ARCHER 83, in contrast, an American renewal of high Cold War rhetoric, aggressive and perilous threat displays… were combined with Soviet arms-race and surprise-attack insecurities … in a nearly lethal mix.

When it was over, reports of the Soviet response both surprised and troubled Reagan. With a stunning lack of self-awareness, the president told CIA director William Casey, “I don’t see how they could believe that [we’d launch a first strike]. But it is something to think about.”

Neither the Soviets nor the American public were privy to the wheels beginning to turn in Reagan’s mind, wheels that would eventually lead him to the peace summits and disarmament proposals of his second term. As ABLE ARCHER 83 passed into history, the world still felt itself to be moving inexorably toward thermonuclear holocaust.

On November 20, Americans witnessed the representation of this holocaust that so shook Reagan the previous month at Camp David. Nearly 40 million American households, equaling half the country’s population, tuned into ABC at 8 p.m. on that cold Sunday night for the network’s primetime movie, “The Day After.” Those born into the age of cable and the Internet will struggle to understand how completely the nation’s attention was riveted on that film.

Ignoring my parents’ orders, I furtively watched parts of the film through the banisters and listened to the rest from the top of the stairs. I had never seen portrayals of the things in my pamphlets: disintegration by flash; bomb shelter stillbirths; untreated first-degree burns; slow-motion starvation; mass, late-stage leukemia; total social collapse and despair. But it wasn't just the postwar carnage of the film's second half that terrorized. So did the slow build-up to normalcy's end. I will never forget the scene of the farmer's wife continuing to go about her chores and then screaming in denial as her husband wrestles her into the basement bomb shelter. Even in made-for-TV form, nuclear war was every bit as horrifying as I imagined it.

Two days later, I turned 9. It was the first birthday party I felt no excitement over. The ice cream cake was tasteless. The “Return of the Jedi” action figures I unwrapped were pieces of plastic destined to burn up with everything else. The psychological literature produced at the time confirms I was not alone. In studies conducted in NATO countries, a substantial minority of children reported daily fear and anxiety about nuclear war. Boys had it worse than girls, they said.

There was one clear benefit to my glimpses of “The Day After.” It finally settled my internal debate about what to do in the 30 minutes between test pattern and first impact. For months, I had debated whether to try and run and hide, or climb the nearest roof. The movie decided it for the roof. It answered Nurse Brower’s question, asked in the raw cut Reagan saw, but removed from the final edit, of whether it was the living that envied the dead.

* *

There were no more autumns like that of ’83. The following year, superpower relations came out of their nosedive. By 1987, Gorby-mania and peace summits had overtaken missile deployments and war scares. The panic pangs of 1983 grew fewer and fewer, until one day they were replaced by something like euphoria. The entire world seemed to exhale in unison and relax its stomach muscles after 40 years of blustering nuclear standoff. We peeked out from under the bomb shelter door to find the sun still shining.

It was an understandable response. But it was too easy and based on a misunderstanding. The end of the Cold War did not deliver an end to the nuclear threat. It merely delivered what Jonathan Schell called “the gift of time.” It was an hourglass turned newly upside down, nothing more. Bloated U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals still sit on hair-triggers. To paraphrase Carl Sagan’s famous line from the roundtable that followed “The Day After,” we remain up to our chests in gasoline, holding matches against graphite.

Arms control remained hostage to the same illusions that powered Reagan’s foreign policy of the early 1980s. Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, ratified by the U.S. Senate on October 5, 1963. As the name implies, it was a first step that never saw a second. Republicans in the U.S. Senate have for more than a decade refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In 2002, George W. Bush officially pulled out of the 1972 ABM Treaty and boosted funds for missile defense, which after 30 years remains a $300 billion political fantasy and industry cash cow in futile search of a workable technology. The ideological pathology that believes in “winning” a nuclear war is also alive and well. It was well represented in the administration of George W. Bush. Had John McCain been elected president in 2008, he would have brought to power a new raft of neocons nostalgic for the Russia chest bumping of 1983.

Regardless of which party holds the launch codes, the missiles sitting so patiently in their silos remain subject to human and technological error. As Eric Schlosser reviews in his new book, “Command and Control,” the era of nuclear close calls has outlived the Cold War. The 1995 launch of a Norwegian weather balloon, to pick just one well-known example, triggered alarms in Russia’s degraded early warning system that put Yeltsin’s nuclear suitcase in motion inside a 10-minute decision window. Then there are more recent stories like the one out of North Dakota last May, when an Air Force email leaked describing disciplinary “rot” at a Minuteman launch bunker. Seventeen launch officers were stripped of their positions in what the group’s commander called a “crisis” in nuclear oversight. Many of them are too young to know “The Day After” as anything but cheesy rerun fare on the Sci-Fi Channel.

In the autumn of 2007, I received a lesson in the limits of technological safeguards by none other than The Man Who Saved The World. I was living in Moscow; it was the middle of my first September on the other side of the Cold War. A producer at a Russian news program called me and said they were looking for an American journalist to interview Petrov on the looming anniversary of his historic poise in 1983. I jumped at the chance.

The following afternoon, a film crew taped us strolling through Red Square. We talked about the Cold War, the scare of ’83, and Petrov’s life in retirement. The old man had recently returned from a trip to San Francisco, where the Association of World Citizens had thrown a gala ceremony in his honor. Petrov, who seemed embarrassed by it all, said the group gave him a shiny plaque and $1,000 cash, a lot of money for a Russian pensioner. As a surprise for his wife, he spent a good chunk of the money on a fancy vacuum cleaner. “She must have been very happy,” I said. Petrov smiled and raised a hand.

“When I got it home,” he said, “the machine malfunctioned. It didn’t work at all.”

By Alexander Zaitchik

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.

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