Abstract: Did the Cold War of the 1980s nearly turn hot? Much has been made of NATO’s November 1983 Able Archer 83 command post exercise, which the literature typically casts as having nearly precipitated a nuclear war. Warsaw Pact policy-makers, according to the conventional wisdom, suspected that the exercise was more than just a rehearsal of nuclear escalation and concluded that a surprise nuclear attack was imminent, nearly launching a preemptive strike of their own. This article overturns this narrative using new, international evidence from the political, military, and intelligence archives of the Eastern bloc. First, it shows that the much-touted Warsaw Pact intelligence effort to assess Western intentions and capabilities, Project RIaN, which supposedly triggered Eastern fears of a surprise attack was nowhere near operational at the time of Able Archer 83. Second, it presents an account of the East’s sanguine observations of Able Archer 83 disproving accounts which allege that the exercise nearly escalated to nuclear war. In doing so, it advances debates not only in the historiography of the late Cold War, but also pertaining to the stability of the nuclear peace and the role of perception and misperception in policy-making.
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Simon Miles is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He teaches and researches US grand strategy, nuclear weapons, and Cold War international history. Simon is the author of Engaging the ‘Evil Empire’: US-Soviet Relations, 1980–1985, forthcoming from Cornell University Press; and he is beginning a new monograph, On Guard for Peace and Socialism: The Warsaw Pact, 1955–1991, an international history of the Cold War–era military alliance.