Monday, June 07, 2004

The Reagan Legacy

Ronald Reagan's death has set off a deluge of praise for the man and his presidency. Much of this revolves around his role in ending the Cold War. Reagan was surely right that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" and he was prescient in his prediction that it would end up on the "dustbin of history" when most "experts" (myself included) thought it impossible. Nonetheless, his bellicose rhetoric and policies were risky in the extreme, so just to keep things in perspective, here's a report on how the U.S. and the Soviet Union almost went to nuclear war in the fall of 1983.

It was just past midnight as Stanislav Petrov settled into the commander's chair inside the secret bunker at Serpukhov-15, the installation where the Soviet Union monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States.

Then the alarms went off. On the panel in front him was a red pulsating button. One word flashed: "Start."

It was Sept. 26, 1983, and Petrov was playing a principal role in one of the most harrowing incidents of the nuclear age, a false alarm signaling a U.S. missile attack. . . .

As Petrov described it in an interview, one of the Soviet satellites sent a signal to the bunker that a nuclear missile attack was underway. The warning system's computer, weighing the signal against static, concluded that a missile had been launched from a base in the United States.

The responsibility fell to Petrov, then a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel, to make a decision: Was it for real?

Petrov was situated at a critical point in the chain of command, overseeing a staff that monitored incoming signals from the satellites. He reported to superiors at warning-system headquarters; they, in turn, reported to the general staff, which would consult with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov on the possibility of launching a retaliatory attack.

Petrov's role was to evaluate the incoming data. At first, the satellite reported that one missile had been launched – then another, and another. Soon, the system was "roaring," he recalled – five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched, it reported.

Despite the electronic evidence, Petrov decided – and advised the others – that the satellite alert was a false alarm, a call that may have averted a nuclear holocaust.

The story goes on to add:

It is not known what happened at the highest levels of the Kremlin on the night of the alarm, but it came at a climactic stage in U.S.-Soviet relations that is now regarded as a Soviet "war scare." According to former CIA analyst Peter Pry, and a separate study by the agency, Andropov was obsessed with the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack by the West and sent instructions to Soviet spies around the world to look for evidence of preparations.

One reason for Soviet jitters at the time was that the West had unleashed a series of psychological warfare exercises aimed at Moscow, including naval maneuvers into forward areas near Soviet strategic bastions, such as the submarine bases in the Barents Sea.

The 1983 alarm also came just weeks after Soviet pilots had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 and just before the start of a NATO military exercise, known as Able Archer, that involved raising alert levels of U.S. nuclear forces in Europe to simulate preparations for an attack. Pry has described this exercise as "probably the single most dangerous incident of the early 1980s."

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