Michael KreponYears of Living Dangerously

Happy New Year!

There have been five particularly horrific years of living dangerously in the nuclear age. The first was, most jarringly, 1945, when the Bomb made its spectacular appearance. No advance in the history of warfare was more jarring than a city-killing weapon that could be delivered by surprise for which there was no defense.

The second period of maximum danger was 1949-1950, when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, President Truman endorsed a crash program to proceed with far more powerful thermonuclear weapons, the People’s Republic of China was born, and the Korean War began. It was an open question whether or not atomic bombs would again be used to end a prolonged land war in Asia that was at times going very badly for the United States before it ground to a bitter stalemate.

The third year of living dangerously was 1962, when the Cuban missile crises played out over thirteen days. This crisis occurred at a time when there were no tacit rules of engagement between the Superpowers and before the era of communication satellites or “hotlines.” (It took half a day to code, transmit, via Western Union, and translate Nikita Khrushchev’s first letter to President John F. Kennedy.) In the meantime, dramas unfolded in a matter of minutes that could have changed the course of planetary history.

The fourth year of living dangerously was 1983, the year that President Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be the focus of evil in the world, when he surprised nearly everyone by announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative aimed at providing an astrodome-like protection against missile attack, Soviet air defense forces shot down a Korean Airlines plane with a Congressman on board that had strayed hopelessly off course, the United States began to deploy new missiles based in Western Europe, and the Kremlin walked out of nuclear negotiations.

The fifth year of living dangerously was 2001, when Americans became acutely conscious of their vulnerability due to the seething rage of nineteen young men, mostly Saudi, who used jet fuel as bombs against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. These attacks unhinged the U.S. electorate sufficiently to endorse the prosecution of two prolonged wars that are unlikely to be worth the great sacrifices of their prosecution.

Anxiety produced by years of living dangerously remains in the bloodstream of the body politic for many years afterward. Political debate and poor decisions thrive on anxious metaphors – Munich is still a hardy perennial – even when the passage of time dulls their import and relevance. Because anxiety takes refuge at the cellular level, threat inflation never grows old: we always overreact to jarring events.

The Bomb and insecurity are inseparable. Nuclear weapon requirements advance during years of living dangerously and then recede over time, leaving remnants of force structure behind. The Bomb doesn’t help major powers get what they want in this world. Still, attachment to the Bomb, like anxiety, is a hard habit to break. Nuclear weapons continue to be especially useful for states that are not good company, but do not wish to be ignored or leveraged by stronger powers.

US presidents of quite different persuasions have managed to implement cooperative arrangements for threat reduction to help prevent new nightmares related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of messianic terrorism. Republican and Democratic presidents have also maintained and updated frameworks to reduce old-fashioned nuclear threats, largely by means of treaties, reducing global stockpiles by 70 percent.

This track record of reducing nuclear dangers and avoiding nuclear nightmares rivals all other diplomatic accomplishments since the end of World War II. Treaty critics credit this extraordinary result to peace through strength, including the prospect of devastating, potentially genocidal threats, more politely known as nuclear deterrence. They are only half right. Nuclear arms racing without diplomacy increases insecurity. Arms build-ups and deterrence require reassurance to maintain the nuclear peace. Nuclear deterrence without arms control is like trying to construct a lasting, protective edifice with bricks but no mortar.


  1. Jeff (History)

    Good post Michael. I don’t disagree with your list but you are leaving out some other pretty cool years, like when Israel took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor, North Korea’s test fire, Pakistan/India’s acquisition of the bomb, etc.

    Thanks a-lot, I enjoy the blog.


    • Tim (History)

      Fully agree with Jeff on both counts–the quality of the post as well as the fact that the list could probably grow to frightening length.

      The possibility that the Sino-Soviet border clashes of August 1969 could have escalated to the nuclear level strikes me as a particularly important and under-examined candidate for the list.


  2. Scott Monje (History)

    How about Able Archer, also 1983?

    Didn’t the Soviets approach Nixon about a joint strike on Chinese nuclear facilities?

    • krepon (History)

      In one of my early ACW posts (9/29/09), I wrote about Oleg Gordievsky, who may figure importantly in the Able Archer story. I’ve reproduced the post below. I’ve reproduced the first 2.5 years of my posts in Rummaging in Shoeboxes, an e-book, for those who wish to dabble.

      In late 1983, well before Mikhail Gorbachev’s elevation as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the Reagan administration switched gears in dealing with the Soviet Union, moving from a policy of confrontation to the alleviation of the Politburo’s deep anxieties. This was a tumultuous year in superpower relations, marked by the surprise unveiling of SDI, the deployment of “Euro-missiles,” the Soviet walk-out from nuclear negotiations in Geneva, the shoot-down of a Korean airliner that strayed over Soviet territory – a screw up that was characterized as a deliberate, malevolent act by senior Reagan administration officials – and extremely harsh, top-down rhetoric from both capitals.

      During this perilous year, those with intelligence backgrounds in the Soviet Politburo, led by General Secretary Yuri Andropov, believed that the Reagan administration was willing and capable of carrying out a surprise attack. Andropov & Co. ordered Soviet agents to monitor U.S. blood banks and the number of lights on late at night in the State Department and Pentagon. The U.S. intelligence community, chastened by the “Team B” critique of its too-soft assessments of Soviet strategic goals, had officially come around to the view that the Kremlin was seeking to exploit its emerging strategic superiority. During most of the first three years of the Reagan administration, Washington and Moscow were like ships passing blindly in the night, both convinced that some sort of crash was imminent.

      Why did the Reagan administration switch gears? Was this the result of a carefully planned presidential script, whereby the Reagan administration’s military build up served as the precursor to negotiated arms reductions? A new book by Martin and Annelise Anderson, Reagan’s Secret War (2009), argues this case: “With the benefit of hindsight, we see intent, planning, and timing.” Paul Lettow’s book, Ronald Reagan and his Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (2005), makes a similar case. Or was this switch the result of a shifting balance of power among Reagan’s advisers, where deal-makers supplanted hard liners? Many first-person accounts of the Reagan years, as well as Strobe Talbott’s fine books, provide ample evidence for this thesis.

      I believe there is a third explanation for the Reagan administration’s turn-around but, as yet, there is only indirect evidence for this hypothesis. Don Oberdorfer told some of this tale in The Turn (1991). Two months after KAL 007 was shot down, the United States and its NATO allies conducted a “nuclear release exercise” code-named Able Archer. The Andersons tell us that this exercise was carried out with “a bit more enthusiasm than usual.” Suffice it to say that Able Archer gave paranoids in the Politburo added reason to observe the night shift at the Pentagon. David Hoffman’s new book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (2009), adds further detail to this hair-raising story.

      During this time, British intelligence was handling a Soviet double agent, Oleg Gordievsky, then stationed in London. “On the night of November 8-9,” Oberdorfer writes, “according to Gordievsky, Moscow sent flash telegrams to its KGB stations in Western Europe to gather all possible information on the highest priority basis of U.S. preparations for a surprise missile attack against the Soviet Union.” This information was passed along to the CIA “within weeks after the end of Able Archer.” Hoffman’s reporting suggests that Gordievsky’s alarming information was conveyed before Able Archer, as well. When did this information reach President Reagan?

      Now back to the Andersons. They point to a key entry in Ronald Reagan’s diary, dated November 18, 1983: “I feel the Soviets are so defense-minded, so paranoid about being attacked, that without being in any way soft on them, we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that.” Reagan then began working more intensively with Secretary of State George Shultz to lay the groundwork for reassuring the Kremlin and re-starting negotiations.

      The Andersons mention Gordievsky on the page after quoting this diary excerpt, but not as the source of Reagan’s disquiet. My sense is that Gordievsky played a crucial role in the turnaround from confrontation to negotiation by de-clawing the Team B approach to the Kremlin, reaffirming in Reagan’s mind the need to act to avoid Armageddon, and empowering the deal makers around the President.

      Is Gordievsky one of the unsung heroes of the Cold War? More supportive evidence is needed.

  3. anon (History)

    I’m not sure what this is supposed to be a list of, but it seems very U.S.-centric and not particularly focused on nuclear dangers. My list would include the 1999 India-Pakistan Kargil crisis and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when we really did seem to be close to nuclear use.

    If we have to keep the list to five I would ditch 1983 and 2001. I think the nuclear risks in 1983 are overstated. I like to argue that the real Cold War ended after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which taught the United States and Soviet Union to stay away from direct conflict. After that the was a sort of phony Cold War where we went through the motions until 1989.

    2001 was a year of high anxiety but not particularly on the nuclear front.

    • Alex W. (History)

      If you want to be more impressed by the dangers of 1983, check out David Hoffman’s _Dead Hand_. He paints a pretty compelling picture — for me anyway — of exactly how on-edge the Soviets were. I don’t think the US was that interested in actually fighting nuclear war at that point, but the Soviets were convinced of the bombast otherwise. The shooting down of the Korean Air flight is not unrelated to this. One other 1983 incident of massive proportions that Michael has omitted is the Stanislav Petrov incident, in which the Soviets actually DID think that the US has launched a nuclear attack against them, but chose to believe it was impossible despite this. That’s at least as close a call as the Cuban Missile Crisis, in my opinion.

      I think calling the early 1980s a “phony Cold War” is deeply incorrectly. It was at least as dangerous as the 1960s, perhaps even more so because of the rather cavalier attitude Reagan brought to the table.

  4. bradley laing (History)

    —Do you rake seriously the idea that a hydrogen bomb nearly detonated by accident on 24 January, 1961?

    —How much more dangerous a year could you get than that?

    “Daniel Ellsberg, famously of the Pentagon Papers case, was quoted in the April 1981 issue of Mother Jones as saying that during his time at the Pentagon he saw “a classified document” about the Goldsboro incident which verified Lapp’s claim. Ellsberg stood by his story in a telephone interview for this project, and repeated his 1981 assertions that when the behavior of safety features in both bombs involved in this incident are taken into account, every kind of safety interlock had failed.”


    • John Schilling (History)

      That story, as presented, is more hype than fact and there’s not really enough detail to evaluate the facts. At least this version gets the yield of the weapons right, but beyond that it’s akin to watching a police officer slip on an icy sidewalk and saying, “his gun almost went off!”

      In particular, the bit with five out of six safety mechanisms “failing” is extremely suspicious; I do not believe a 1961-era hydrogen bomb would have had six interlocks relevant to an accidental-drop case. Six interlocks total, yes. That includes, e.g., an accelerometer whose job is to say, “yes, the bomb was in extended free-fall recently, there’s no chance that it is sitting in the back of a truck with a terrorist furiously trying to hot-wire the thing, detonation is authorized”. I would wager that this interlock functioned properly, and is being included in the count of “failed” interlocks in spite of its complete lack of relevance.

      More detail would be helpful. Barring that, all we’ve really got is that a couple of guys we maybe like and trust say they saw classified papers that say it was a really close call. And a web site proclaiming “The Full Story Behind the Goldsboro Incident”, which is an exaggeration so gross as to constitute a lie. This one doesn’t belong on the same list as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

  5. hira bahadur thapa (History)

    While subscribing to the views of the blogger I would prefer him to include 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan as one the most potential threats that could have also escalated to the level of nuclear exchange.

  6. Scott Monje (History)

    When we speak of incidents that risked escalating into nuclear war, we are speaking from our own subjective perceptions. But, naturally, more than one side is involved in an international crisis and the Soviets were notoriously tight-lipped about how they perceived incidents and about the actions they were considering. I recall one Russian claiming much later (in the Gorbachev era, I believe) that the Checkpoint Charlie incident(which hardly anyone in this country remembers), rather than the Cuban Missile Crisis, was the closest the two sides came to nuclear war.

    • bradley laing (History)

      —At this point, would the Russian Federation admit it if some kind of collision between a Soviet and American sub had led to a near-war incident?

      —Has enough been declassified by both sides of the U.S. Navy / Soviet Navy Cold War to know?

  7. anon (History)

    Talk about “horrific years of living dangerously in the nuclear age” – in my ~40 yr.s in the nuclear weapons business, purportedly, there’s been ~1,800,000 deaths in the U.S. alone from traffic accidents.

  8. obsydean (History)

    I like this last comment. It worthwhile to consider the National Center for Health Statistics numbers for all causes of death in the US. Almost all of us will die from some medical condition. A small number will die in a car crash or other accident. Smaller number will kill yourselves intentionally, even fewer will be murdered, usually by someone you know. Less than half the number of suicides. A sliver on the pie chart will be our war wounded and dead. A miniscule in the last ten years are attributable to terrorism. So for a few thousand dead New Yorkers amoung billions on this planet of individuals we still thump our chests and insist on war. If you like and enjoy death, then this is the blog for you. If you hate it like I do, monitor these clowns in your off-time but during the day commit to working on the true threats to humanity. All you bright minds obsessing over how many nukes can balance on the head of pin…
    I guess even arms control wonks need something to do until they wind up in the hospital. I’ll see you then. Peace out!

  9. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    This is a very important era to study. I think there are several common threads between the Soviet Union’s leadership in 1983 and America’s leadership since 2001. Both leadership cadres felt intense paranoia and fostered a feeling of threat within their respective military and industrial aparat. The difference between the two cadres is obvious in that one was constrained by the intense military threat from the enemy (Western containment of the Eastern Bloc) and the other (Bush/Obama) was faced by an immensely weak but willing to act threat. Compare the outcomes. In the cold war when there was a real military threat and both sides were contained, those who held arms in check won the day and the fallout from the era is evident today. Europe and the Pacific is far better off today than it was during the Cold War. Compare that to the open use of military force in the War on Terror. The outcomes could not be more stark. The obvious failure of the Bush and Obama doctrine call for a complete re-assessment of what America considers a strategic interest let alone how to serve it. The United States has descended to Soviet levels of serving the perception of insecurity with the raw application of force. In the coming multipolar world I hope the US dusts off it’s old Cold War playbook and finds a way to dispose of the current security aparat as history has shown they totally lack the restraint or sense of scale needed for survival when facing off a peer power. A look back to history with today in mind would be a very constructive thing.