08/22/2013 05:15 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2013

What We Can Learn From the End of the Cold War

Has a big factor been ignored in analyzing the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, and if so, what's a lesson for today? As part of the explanation for a radical change of policy, did Gorbachev and his circle fear that the system of "mutual assured destruction" (MAD) was unstable and thus fatally dangerous to the USSR and beyond it, to the humanity that he kept invoking?

Recently revealed (and largely ignored) documents suggest that a particular episode of near-nuclear war in 1983 may have shocked a progressive sector of the Soviet leadership. If so, the needs of the MAD system guaranteed that this fear would never be spoken and has remained largely unconscious.

Reagan enthusiasts insisted the Cold War died because the president denounced the USSR as an "evil empire" (in March 1983) and spent that country into the ground militarily. Other factors were the (Soviet) failure in Afghanistan (leading to a withdrawal starting in July 1985), and the nuclear power accident at Chernobyl (in April 1986).

Even if all of these factors played a role, the end may have been initiated by an event dismissively known to policy-makers as a "war scare" in November 1983. It's called a "scare" as if it were a cavalry charge, but actually it was the near-destruction of the northern hemisphere, which would have been not really a war, but a massacre unprecedented by many orders of magnitude.

What happened in late 1983 was that the Soviets calculated that the U.S. was about to launch a surprise nuclear attack, using as cover a military "game" called "Able Archer." The script of this exercise included a nuclear attack on the USSR. What better disguise for a real surprise attack, thought Yuri Andropov, who was then leader of the USSR, than a NATO game simulating such an attack?

We know about this event, 30 years later, because of Freedom of Information requests by the invaluable National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington. Relevant documents are now available in three parts put on line by the archive (which I'm sure now wishes it had a different acronym, perhaps justifiably expanding the first word of its name to "International").

These documents have attracted much less journalistic attention than the whereabouts of Edward Snowden, but they reveal in some detail an event that would have wrecked our civilization and that may have helped lead to one of the biggest political reversals of the past half century.

Participants in the standing nuclear threat have reason to deny that the system was unstable, because success in that system, which exists at a lower level to this day, demands an apparent willingness to participate in the wrecking of the northern hemisphere if the other side seems about to attack. Both sides reserved the right to "launch on warning" because obviously it was advantageous to launch missiles before some of them were destroyed by "absorbing" an attack.

Let's look at the situation faced by the national leader of a "super power." While intercontinental missiles would take up to a half hour to arrive, missiles launched by a submarine or "intermediate range" missiles in Western Europe would take around eight minutes to "decapitate" the political leadership of either country. In that eight minutes, a leader would have to verify an attack spotted by complex instruments and reported by computers, consult advisers, get to a shelter, make a decision, and act.

To the best of our knowledge, Soviet leaders in November 1983 thought that a U.S. nuclear attack was imminent and were wondering at what point to preempt it. In actuality the U.S. had no such intentions, but the Soviet leadership secretly concluded that it might be perceiving many indicators of such an attack. Was this a stable system? In the Cuban missile crisis of 20 years earlier, at least both sides were openly involved and, whatever the degree of danger, were communicating and could alleviate the situation.

In 1986, without any knowledge of what had happened in November 1983, I had occasion to ask a high official of the Reagan administration if the U.S. would be willing to help improve the Soviet system for detecting a nuclear attack, so as to eliminate false alarms. He replied that the technology transfer could be used for military purposes.

During the Cuban missile crisis in 1963 the U.S could not be seen to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey under pressure, even though even though the missiles were obsolete and would have been withdrawn anyway. (JFK secretly agreed to do so as part of the agreement ending the crisis.) In the same way, the USSR could not, in the mid 1980s, easily withdraw from a system of mutual nuclear threats that had shown its instability on several occasions. (The Cuban missile crisis of 1963 and the Able Archer crisis or "war scare" of 1983 are only the most publicly documented.)

Leaders on both sides were locked into a system that didn't allow them to change lest they appear "weak." For whatever complex of reasons, and with whatever intentions, it was Mikhail Gorbachev who utterly changed the system. He pronounced other reasons, such as the asserting the right of each people to chose its own government without being pressured by an imperial power, and putting the welfare of humankind ahead of a revolutionary economic ideology.

One result of this approach was that the U.S. "won" the Cold War. Another was that the destruction of the northern hemisphere in a nuclear exchange became much less probable. I am not arguing that Gorbachev intended this result, rather than reform of his own country. In retrospect, one could argue that any responsible and imaginative elite would take risks to avoid a nuclear exchange. The fact that a nuclear exchange hasn't happened could lead us to feel the policy was a success. But what was the risk?

Today we face a danger no smaller than a nuclear exchange in the form of greenhouse gases that help produce climate change. The threat is different in particulars. Instead of being cloaked in secrecy, it is obvious to anyone alert to peer-reviewed science. Instead of being explosive in nature, climate change is manifesting only over the long term. Instead of offering no benefit other than terrifying the other side, the threat today arises because of the enormous benefits of fossil fuels.

But both threats, however severe, are invisible to most of us. Some military people had to deal with nuclear system, and some scientists are well acquainted now with the probable consequences of climate change. Yet most of us go through life not very aware of things we don't see and in any case don't imagine an alternative to.

In order to escape the worst effects of climate change, the world would have to make as fundamental a change as Gorbachev initiated, on a scale involving fundamental existing ideologies and arrangements. Whether this will occur we don't yet know. If it does, the change would involve "our side," not only a Cold War enemy.

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