An account of the tense relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term.
On Nov. 7, 1983, NATO commenced a five-day military exercise called Able Archer 83. In simulating a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe and a NATO nuclear response, Able Archer scared the Soviet Union into believing that an actual U.S.–led attack was imminent. Thus the Russians readied their nuclear forces and placed military units in Eastern Europe on alert, bringing the two superpowers to the edge of war. Ambinder (co-author: Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, 2013), a former White House correspondent and TV producer, chronicles the road to this near catastrophe. In relating incidents such as Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, the Soviet Union’s shooting down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and the installation of Pershing II missiles in Western Europe, the author skillfully places the Able Archer exercise within the context of the fraught Cold War atmosphere of the early 1980s. He also persuasively argues that a key to the easing of this tension was Reagan’s belated understanding that Russian distrust was rooted in the fact that, as the president noted in his diary, “many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans.” The book features interviews with government officials and spies who were on the scene, and Ambinder writes in the appealing style of Tom Clancy. Yet he compromises the narrative with short chapters that bounce from place to place and a frustrating tendency to omit dates. Moreover, the author employs an extensive cast of characters and a plethora of acronyms (although he does provide lists for both). The fulcrum of the book—the Able Archer exercise and the Soviet reaction to it—is somewhat anticlimactic.
An informative and often enthralling book, but it is tough sledding. Readers must pay strict attention lest they get lost in the story.