Ever wonder what a post-apocalyptic world would look like?
It's a popular question. One that has been imagined in any number of genres, going all the way back to 19th Century literature most likely. In this month in 1983, we came close enough to finding out for ourselves. Arguably, closer than the world has ever been.
At the risk of dating myself, I was in seventh grade at that point in 1983. The number one thing on my mind was G.I. Joe. Not too far behind that, however, was the fear that the world would be reduced to nuclear ash and those of us in rural areas would be left wandering blindly in the aftermath, dying slowly of radiation poisoning. I have written before on my fear of nuclear war and to say things were tense '83 would be an understatement. As good a reason as any to fainaigue school.
In March of that year, then President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union "an evil empire." Reagan also announced the deployment of the Pershing II intermediate-range nuclear missile in West Germany. These missiles would have been able to reach targets in the western section of the Soviet Union in about six minutes. Additionally, the Pershings were mobile, based on massive trucks and could be launched from pretty much anywhere. Not too tough to figure out what they were meant for. They were obvious first strike weapons, even if meant simply as a deterrent. At the same time, US armed forces were engaged in any number of mind games with the Soviets, such as conducting FleetEx '83, a naval exercise in the Pacific composed of an extraordinary amount of warships, and directing bombers to fly towards Soviet airspace but then turn back and that last minute.
Then in September of that year, things really hit the fan. Soviet jet fighters shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a civilian 747, after it had strayed into Soviet airspace. All aboard were lost, including a US congressman.
It is within this zeitgeist that NATO planned an extensive military exercise called Able Archer 83. Taking place between November 2nd and 11th, the maneuvers were meant to simulate a full-on nuclear exchange between the two superpowers. This meant following an escalation of conflict from DEFCON 5 (peacetime) all the way up to DEFCON 1 (launch 'em). Also included in the exercise was the relocation of heads of state (to bunkers, I'm supposing) and new methods of encoded transmissions. Most alarming for any KGB spook listening in would be the prolonged periods of radio silence. Imagine the full structure of the United States military going quiet for stretches of time.
All of these aspects of Able Archer fell in line with what the Soviets expected a prelude to nuclear war would look like. Now the Soviets were made aware that this training exercise would take place, but they suspected far more sinister intentions. There were those in the Politburo who believed this was all a smoke screen from which to launch a devastating nuclear first strike.
In response, the Soviets placed their own nuclear forces on alert. There are accounts of ICBM warheads being armed and fighter-bombers in Poland and East Germany sent to the runways, engines revving and armed nukes under their wings. Just waiting. I have read one account that asserts that the Soviets went as far as to enter their missile's launch codes. The only reason they remained grounded, thereby averting full-out holocaust, was that the codes were wrong and the missiles malfunctioned. Again, there doesn't seem to be anything to corroborate this, but it's something to think about.
Thankfully, November 11th came and the Soviets realized that it really was just an exercise. In what I find to be a bit of historical irony, the TV movie The Day After aired on ABC just nine days later. This movie was a big television event, one that accurately portrayed just what a full tilt nuclear exchange would be like. Viewing it today, it comes off more as a badly acted "disaster movie of the week," but back in the day we were shitting our collective pants. Believe me. Oddly, that's one of the reasons why I still like the film.
There are historians who claim that the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us far closer to armageddon than Able Archer ever did. No argument there. By the same token, Able Archer brought us close enough to the brink for my tastes. But it didn't happen.
Something else to be thankful for this November.
If you'd like to read more about this event, this site is fairly balanced and accurate and is where I got the majority of what you just read.
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