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

September 17, 2019 12:10 pm –2:00 pm 1302 International Affairs
Speaker(s):
Simon Miles, Duke University; Moderated by Stephen Biddle

Did the Cold War of the 1980s nearly turn hot? Much has been made of NATO’s November 1983 Able Archer 83 command post exercise, which the literature typically casts as having nearly precipitated a nuclear war. Warsaw Pact policy-makers, according to the conventional wisdom, suspected that the exercise was more than just a rehearsal of nuclear escalation and concluded that a surprise nuclear attack was imminent, nearly launching a preemptive strike of their own. This paper overturns this narrative using new, international evidence from the political, military, and intelligence archives of the Eastern bloc. First, it shows that the much-touted Warsaw Pact intelligence effort to assess Western intentions and capabilities, Project RIAN, which supposedly triggered Eastern fears of a surprise attack was nowhere near operational at the time of Able Archer 83. Second, it presents an account of the East’s sanguine observations of Able Archer 83, disproving accounts which allege that the exercise nearly escalated to nuclear war. In doing so, it advances debates not only in the historiography of the late Cold War, but also pertaining to the stability of the nuclear peace and the role of perception and misperception in policy-making.

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 current book project 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’: East-West Relations in the Second Cold War, 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.

 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

12:10pm-2:00pm

1302 International Affairs

Registration Required via Columbia/SIPA calendars

Related People

Stephen Biddle

Professor of International and Public Affairs, School of International and Public Affairs

Recent News