The War Scare That Wasn't: Able Archer 83 and the Myths of the Second Cold War

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2020-08

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<jats:p> Did the Cold War of the 1980s nearly turn hot? Much has been made of the November 1983 Able Archer 83 command-post exercise, which is often described as having nearly precipitated a nuclear war when paranoid Warsaw Pact policymakers suspected that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was using the exercise to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. This article challenges that narrative, using new evidence from the archives of the former Warsaw Pact countries. It shows that the much-touted intelligence effort to assess Western intentions and capabilities, Project RYaN, which supposedly triggered fears of a surprise attack, was nowhere near operational at the time of Able Archer 83. It also presents an account of the Pact's sanguine observations of Able Archer 83. In doing so, it advances key debates in the historiography of the late Cold War pertaining to the stability and durability of the nuclear peace. </jats:p>

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10.1162/jcws_a_00952

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Miles, Simon (2020). The War Scare That Wasn't: Able Archer 83 and the Myths of the Second Cold War. Journal of Cold War Studies, 22(3). pp. 86–118. 10.1162/jcws_a_00952 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/21419.

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Scholars@Duke

Miles

Simon Miles

Assistant Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy

Simon Miles joined the faculty of the Sanford School of Public Policy as an Assistant Professor in 2017. He is a diplomatic historian whose research agenda explores the causes and mechanics of cooperation between states.

His first book, Engaging the Evil Empire: Washington, Moscow and the Beginning of the End of the Cold War, explores the root causes of cooperation between two adversarial states, the United States and the Soviet Union, in order to situate the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War in a broader, international context. Between 1980 and 1985, US-Soviet relations improved so rapidly and so profoundly that scholars regularly use the case as an example of longstanding rivals setting aside prior disagreements and beginning to cooperate. Engaging the Evil Empire uses recently declassified archival materials from both sides of the Iron Curtain to show how shifts in the perceived distribution of power catalyzed changes in the strategies which US leaders used to engage the Soviet Union and vice versa.

Simon's second book, On Guard for Peace and Socialism: The Warsaw Pact, 1955–1991, will examine the ways in which the members of the Warsaw Pact conceived of and provided for their own security in the nuclear age. Taking an international archival approach, the book rejects the trope of Moscow as puppet-master and treats the Warsaw Pact as a multilateral military and political organization designed to provide collective security. In any such institution, different member states invariably have different agendas — and different means of advancing those agendas. It holds a mirror up to US and NATO strategy during the Cold War. Using archival evidence from the Warsaw Pact, it identifies the motivations behind Soviet and Warsaw Pact behavior, disaggregating correlation and causation with strategy on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Identifying this causality illustrates whether deterrence and compellence in fact worked the way strategic theorists in the West at the time believed — and scholars and policy-makers continue to believe today.

At Duke, Simon teaches US foreign policy, Cold War international history, and grand strategy; supervises students working on projects in the field of international relations, broadly defined; and organizes the American Grand Strategy Program's History and International Security speakers series.


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