Michael KreponDobrynin

Anatoly Dobrynin was the Soviet Union’s Ambassador to the United States for a mere twenty-four years. He arrived in Washington the year of the Cuban missile crisis and left after Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan managed to steer US-Soviet relations away from nuclear danger. Before this major course correction could occur, Washington and Moscow passed through another year of living dangerously in 1983.

The hair-raising events of 1983 included Reagan’s surprise announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the deployment of US cruise and ballistic missiles in Europe that the Kremlin viewed as pre-emptive strike weapons, the Soviet walk-out from nuclear negotiations, the shoot-down of a Korean airliner, games of chicken by U.S. submarines and maritime patrol aircraft, heated rhetoric by President Reagan, and a NATO command-post exercise nicknamed Able Archer that paranoid Kremlin officials viewed as a dress rehearsal for the real thing.

Taken together, these developments were still not as anxiety-provoking as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but they were serious enough for Soviet intelligence operatives to be tasked with checking out blood banks in the United States and the number of lights on in the wee hours at the Pentagon and State Department. What made matters worse was the tunnel vision of leading Soviet analysts in the U.S. Intelligence Community who had difficulty distinguishing between aggressive and paranoid behavior emanating from the Soviet Union.

Dobrynin’s long tenure made him an essential go-between, helping both capitals understand each other. His memoirs, published in English as In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents (1995), offers insights into the last US-Soviet Year of Living Dangerously, thirty years ago, and the shift from confrontation to cooperative nuclear risk reduction. Here’s a sampler, picking up Dobrynin’s narrative on May 12, 1983, shortly after President Reagan delivered two speeches in March 1983, one pronouncing the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” the other unveiling the SDI:

Gromyko, Ustinov and Andropov sent the Politburo a memorandum vividly illustrating the real feelings of the core of the Kremlin towards Reagan’s proposals and his presidency. It angrily accused him of creating ‘a propaganda cover-up for the aggressive militarist policy of the United States’ and trying to break the détente agreements of nuclear parity. The speech as a whole, they said, ‘is saturated with gross, unadulterated hostility toward the Soviet Union…’


On September 29 [1983], Pravda published a statement by [Soviet General Secretary] Andropov sharply criticizing Reagan’s policies on nuclear arms in Europe and attacking the administration’s anti-Soviet campaign following the shooting down of the Korean airliner. The key phrase was that ‘if anyone ever had any illusions about the possibility of an evolution to the better in the policy of the present administration, these illusions are completely dispelled now.’ The word ‘completely’ was emphasized. The Soviet leadership had collectively arrived at the conclusion that any agreement with Reagan was impossible…”


The impact of Reagan’s hard-line policy on the internal debates in the Kremlin and on the evolution of the Soviet leadership was exactly the opposite from the one intended by Washington. It strengthened those in the Politburo, the Central Committee, and the security apparatus who had been pressing for a mirror-image of Reagan’s own policy. Ronald Reagan managed to create a solid front of hostility among our leaders…


It is now clear that the turn began during the presidential election year of 1984… [Secretary of State George] Shultz showed me an advance draft of a speech Reagan was making on Soviet-American relations on January 16..,. Reagan’s message had a new twist and a new tone: now that the economic and military might of the United States had revived and its alliance with Europe had been consolidated, the administration was prepared to start settling its differences with the Soviet Union, and the year 1984 was proclaimed one of opportunities for peace.

There are plenty of books narrating how the Reagan administration shifted gears with Moscow after the President’s re-election. These books mostly focus on internecine warfare between dealers and squeezers within the Reagan administration and on the high political theater of US-Soviet negotiations. In my view, these books do not adequately explain what President Reagan was thinking. His memoirs and papers have been published, but they are not all that clarifying. An accomplished biographer, Edmund Morris, was granted unprecedented access to Reagan, and he, too, was flummoxed trying to figure out what made the man tick. He had to resort to a semi-fictionalized account, Dutch (2000), to try to get inside Reagan’s head.

I’ve speculated in an earlier post [“The Turn,” 9/29/09, available in Rummaging in Shoeboxes, (2011)] about whether the President’s belated understanding of how dangerous the events of 1983 were — particularly those surrounding Able Archer, as recounted to him via British intelligence by a Soviet double agent, Oleg Gordievsky – might have played a role in the timing of this shift. Or perhaps the answer is far simpler: that an anti-nuclear president about to be re-elected wanted to do something hugely consequential in a second term. It’s odd that with everything written about President Reagan, we still don’t really have a good understanding of his thinking. The Great Communicator was also the Great Sphinx.


  1. Bradley Laing (History)

    –Honestly, I’d argue that Reagan slept through his entire presidency. The change in his policies was because Gorbachev changed US public opinion, and some members of Congress read newspapers, although most read letters from K Street. The Congress changed the polciies, Reagan didn’t know what they were.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)


    LONDON — In a report that caused some consternation in the Netherlands on Monday, a former prime minister was said to have confirmed for the first time that American Cold War-era nuclear bombs are being stored on Dutch soil.

    De Telegraaf quoted Ruud Lubbers, prime minister from 1982 to 1994, as saying 22 weapons were stored in underground strong rooms at the Volkel Air Base in Brabant.

    The newspaper said experts had identified the weapons referred to by Mr. Lubbers as B61 gravity nuclear bombs.

  3. Bradley Laing (History)
  4. Bradley Laing (History)


    —Fictional version from “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Chrystal Skull,” 2008.

  5. Bradley Laing (History)


    “In an effort to show Israel and other ally states that it is capable of striking Iran’s nuclear plants, the US has recently conducted a test of its bunker buster bomb, destroying a replica of an underground nuclear facility, Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot reported on Friday.

    The nuclear facility replica, that cost millions of dollars to build, was made of concrete and buried under dozens of feet of dirt and rocks, Yediot reported.”

  6. Fred Miller (History)

    It pays to keep in mind that President Reagan was a politician. Some times politicians can move public opinion, and some times they can’t, but they can never, ever, let public opinion fail to move them.

    The Nuclear Freeze movement erupted during Reagan’s first term. By 1984 more people voted for the Nuclear Freeze Initiative than have ever voted for any non-candidate ballot initiative. Democratic Presidential contenders argued over who was the “leader” of the movement.

    When President Reagan told the anti nuclear weapons movement “I’m one of you”, we laughed, but the fact remains that Reagan did more to dismantle nuclear weapons than any other President.

    Maybe Reagan was forced to respond to a growing popular movement. Maybe the Freeze movement gave Reagan the political space needed by a President for whom nuclear disarmament was, as Nancy Reagan said, “his greatest wish”. Either way, it seems likely that the groundswell of public opinion that occured in the 1980s against nuclear weapons played a major role in causing Reagan to shift from hawk to dove on nuclear weapons issues.

    The Nuclear Freeze Campaign has crumbled. Peace Action, as it calls itself today, is a faint echo. Since major progress toward elimination of the nuclear threat has only occured in the presence of a large, coordinated anti nuclear movement, it may be a long while before serious reductions in the nuclear stockpile are debated seriously.

  7. David E. Hoffman (History)

    I would argue that we actually know more about Reagan’s thinking than you allow for. He had thought about nuclear weapons a lot before coming to office, and had a streak of abolitionism in him. He deliberately did not discuss this during the 1980 presidential campaign because he felt the times called for a confrontation with the Soviet Union. But the abolitionist in him existed. You didn’t include “The Day After” in your list of consequential events for 1983, but it was a very big deal then (if a somewhat cheesy film) and had a huge audience. Reagan saw the film at Camp David before it was aired. It left him depressed.
    I think the question of the turn is very important, but I am not persuaded that the approaching 1984 re-election campaign was the driving reason or the overriding one. Reagan was affected by the war scare of late 1983. He never used the word evil empire again after the Ivan and Anna speech of January, 1984. Sure, he was thinking about the second term and all that. But I think he had come to his own conclusions about nuclear war long before. You might say that he agreed with those nuclear freeze protestors in the early 1980s on the substance, but not on the timing. Reagan was to his very marrow a negotiator. He felt that he had to squeeze first and deal later. That’s why he didn’t let the abolitionist thinking come out of the bottle at first.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      —One of my favorite things is the MX Rail Garrison, which was cancelled in 1991 under public pressure. Who, Ronald Reagan, or anyone else, in 1984 wanted the rail garrison, and who, after the 1988 election and arms control treaties, wanted to keep it betweem 1988 and 1991?

      —Why didn’t reagan want to baargin away the rail garrison?

      –Or did he want to?

  8. Bradley Laing (History)

    PARIS — France on Tuesday ordered an inquiry into security at a nuclear submarine base off its western coast following a report that the ultra-sensitive site could easily be targeted by terrorists.

    Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has ordered an immediate review of the ground, maritime and aerial security of the base on Ile Longue, an island off the Britanny coast, officials said.

    The move follows a report in the regional daily Telegramme de Brest detailing a string of shortcomings in security at the base.

    According to the newspaper, it can be accessed by anyone who has an easy-to-copy identity badge, and there is no system of biometric identification of staff via their irises or fingerprints.

    For vehicles, a simple piece of paper with a few basic details is sufficient to get past checkpoints and, as a result of ongoing upgrading work, trucks entering the site have not been subject to systematic checks.

    The paper also noted that a large number of the 115 military police deployed to protect the site were part-time volunteers, many of whom were young, inexperienced and poorly paid


  9. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    You know I never really understood the over emotional reaction to the deployment of GLCM and Pershing II. Why no angst and 100’s of thousands in the street over the SS-20/Pioneer system? Let alone the other tactical systems of the Eastern bloc. Okay, I get it, you can fight city hall in the West and not the East. Well it used to be that way. But it was those right wing nut cases who actually got the IMF treaty passed and put into effect.

  10. Bradley Laing (History)

    –If you think this does not belong here, I’ll agree with you.

    —But today the Syrian government was accused, by the US govnment, of using nerve agents.

    —If Syria did have a nuclear weapons program, in the sense of a group of men in a room making “calculations on the back of envelopes,” are they in danger of being held prisoner as political pawns? And who are the chess-players who would use them?

    —And would any of the chess-players let them talk to a newspaper so the Wonks of the world had can read what they say?

  11. Bradley Laing (History)


    VIENNA — Britain has stepped up efforts to let India join an influential global body controlling nuclear exports, a move that would boost New Delhi’s standing as an atomic power but which has faced resistance from China and other countries.

    The diplomatic tussle centers on whether emerging power India should be allowed into a key forum deciding rules for civilian nuclear trade, even though it has refused to join an international pact under which it would have to give up its nuclear weapons.

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