Crisis Management, Cold War-style.
2. Ronnie Talk To RussiaThe world situation is now slipping towards a very dangerous precipice. Problem number one for the world is to avoid nuclear war.
Andrei Gromyko (Soviet foreign minister), 8 September 1983.
In 1981, Reagan defeated Carter's demoralised Democrat administration with an election campaign based on two fundamentals: neoliberal economic reform and increased focus on national security. The original neoconservative progamme entailed a massive increase in defence spending, supplemented by cuts in almost every other domestic programme, including education. Deregulation and investment in domestic (arms) production gave the US market a sharp, short-term injection of capital, but at the cost of unbalancing its long-term infrastructure and leading to recession within a decade. Defence spending served a number of functions. First: it provided an artificial boost to the US economy, lifting the country out of recession. Second: it fulfilled the promise of robust foreign policy, strengthening national defence after Carter's ineffectual Presidency. Third: defence investment became a new offensive strategy. Reaganomics set new military budgets and targets far in excess of anything the Soviets could hope to match without giving up the arms race, or going bust. For a while, Reagan genuinely believed that the Cold War could be won by outspending the Soviet Union, and he wanted them to know it. Critics of Reagan's policy predicted a third outcome: the Soviets, faced with defeat either way, would launch a pre-emptive strike in the hope of sneaking a desperate advantage over the Americans. The European Allies were particularly anxious about this possibility, as they remained likely first strike targets for Soviet missiles.
Aggressive American spending on military hardware amounted to a full-scale rearmament programme which matched Reagan's bellicose rhetoric with fiscal muscle that was, nevertheless, overestimated and recklessly spent.Under Reagan, the Pentagon was granted almost every new weapons system it wanted, the new MX missile and the B1 bomber programme which Carter had scrapped, a 600-ship navy with new aircraft carriers, replenished ammunition stocks and new tanks and other conventional weapons. The Reagan rearmemant boom represented a dramatic reallocation of resources. In constant (1985) dollars, defence spending rose from $1181.5 billion in 1976 to $242.3 in 1982, and to $270 billion in 1984. Under the first term of the Reagan presidency, defence spending increased by 40% in real terms, and from 5.2 to over 7 per cent of GDP. In 1980, when Reagan was elected, the USA was the world's largest creditor, and its national debt was just over $1 trillion. By 1992, after two terms of President Reagan and one of President Bush, the United States was the world's largest debtor and the national debt had reached $4 trillion. The difference - $3 trillion, or $3000 billion - is roughly equivalent to the accumulated defence budget of those years.
When Reagan entered office his political experience was entirely domestic, having served as Governer of California between 1966-74. He didn't know very much about the Soviet Union, but as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s he rumbled a Communist plot to take over the film industry (he claimed). Due to his ignorance of national security issues and the convoluted subtleties of Cold War diplomacy, Reagan relied heavily on his national security advisors, most of whom were plucked straight out of the Committee on the Present Danger. These advisors persuaded Reagan that a nuclear exchange between the superpowers could be contained and prevented from escalating into general war. Furthermore, he was advised that the US needed to be prepared to initiate nuclear war, and prevail.
What the committee feared most was the possibility that a Soviet first strike aimed solely at US military installations would be so devastating that the United States would have too few strategic forces remaining to retaliate effectively against the Soviet homeland. To retaliate with insufficient forces would be suicidal, they insisted, because America's cities would then be exposed to retaliation from the enemy's second and third strikes. Faced with the prospect of being forced to accept the destruction of US military installations, in order to avoid the destruction of America's cities through the expansion of the war, the Committee on the Present Danger believed that any president would suffer a paralysis of will that would lead to US capitulation to Soviet nuclear blackmail. To counter the possibility that the Soviets might attack only US military installations and hold US cities hostage to Soviet nuclear blackmail, Reagan's advisors insisted that the United States must enhance its capability to attack only counterforce targets in the Soviet union. But they did not want US nuclear forces limited only to a retaliatory role. If America's vital interests were threatened, they argued, the United States must be prepared to initiate and "prevail" in a nuclear conflict.
(Ronald E. Powaski)
The arguments were convoluted and almost incomprehensible, but led in one direction: towards heavy spending on development of the Stealth Bomber and the Trident II missile. In 1982, the Pentagon's annual 'Defence Guidance Statement' was leaked to the American press, with its stark claim that "protracted nuclear war is possible". In a subsequent press briefing, this statement was clarified: a war could last up to six months and be won ("American nuclear forces must
prevail..."). The war plan involved tactical nuclear strikes with gaps in between for diplomatic exchange. Added to this, Reagan's public rhetoric had an Evangelical, Manichean twist that framed the stand-off between world capitalism and communism in moral and apocalyptic terms. The word "evil" was exploited for deliberate political effect. I know of no leader of the Soviet Union since the revolution, and including the present leadership, that has not more than once repeated in the various Communist congresses they hold, their determination that their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state...the only morality they recognise is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that.
By December 1981, a TV news poll revealed that 76% of Americans expected nuclear war within years. The European Allies were very nervous too. Reagan's words and actions had sent a shiver down the Soviet spine. He was the Kremlin's nightmare: the cowboy gunslinger, the hick crusader, finger twitching on a nuclear trigger. Historically, Soviet leaders had considered the possibility that a "madman" would become the president of the United States and unleash a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Reagan, they feared, might be that madman.
(Powaski) In another sense, however, Reagan was a gift to Soviet propagandists who could characterise him as the unreasonable aggressor, risking nuclear annihilation for the sake of domestic policy and moral gesture. It was easy, because the world generally agreed.
Actually, nuclear war terrified Reagan. And it was this fear that explained his enthusiasm for the Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars), despite the alarm of advisors and allies (including Thatcher) who warned of its destabilising effect on global deterrence. Reagan's SDI zeal came from an apparently genuine desire to eliminate nuclear weapons from the Cold War stalemate and undo the doctrine of MAD. He believed that a system capable of destroying incoming missiles before they hit their targets had the potential to make nuclear arms obsolete. Unfortunately, he overestimated the technology involved, and underestimated the (inter)national resistance to SDI. The idea of destroying missiles with space and land-based lasers was deeply flawed, and it didn't take research to work out why: decoy or dummy missiles could be deployed, missile trajectories could be shifted slightly to avoid an antimissile strike but still hit a target, etc. Furthermore, SDI opened up a large technological gap between the Americans and the Soviets, which the Soviets viewed as an offensive shift. The European Allies were outraged by American plans to safeguard the homeland and leave them exposed to Soviet missiles. Thatcher, Reagan's natural ally, was so alarmed by the implications of SDI that she persuaded Reagan to expand any potential plans to include Allied territories. To Reagan, SDI made far more sense than MAD, which he described as "two westerners standing in a saloon aiming their guns at each other's heads - permanently." Reagan had refused to attend the Pentagon nuclear war plan briefing until 1983 - the idea appalled and depressed him. But, despite this fear, he did not reverse his provocative cold warrior stance until 1984. This reversal was inspired by a succession of incidents.
The first of these occurred in September, 1983. A Korean airliner jet (Korean Air Lines Flight 007) accidently flew more than 300 miles over the Sakhalin peninsula into Soviet airspace. The Soviets - suspicious that KAL 007 was actually an American spyplane - shot the aircraft down, killing 296 passengers, including one member of the US congress. Reagan's public reaction was strong: he denounced Soviet "barbarism," and accused them of deliberately shooting down a civilian plane. Reagan claimed that this incident confirmed "the refusal of the Soviet Union to abide by normal standards of civilized behavior." But this was all public bluster, ideological bluff: in private most conceded that KAL 007's fate was sealed by human error rather than political aggression. This enforced Reagan's fears: if "the Soviet pilots simply mistook the airliner for a military plane, what kind of imagination did it take to think of a Soviet military man with his finger close to a nuclear button making an even more tragic mistake?" For others, like Richard Perle and the National Security Council, the KAL 007 disaster supplied the perfect excuse to recommend the suspension of arms control negotiations, which they opposed anyway.
The next thing to haunt Reagan's imagination was a preview of The Day After
, a made-for-TV movie similar to the BBC's classic holocaust docudrama Threads
. The film's narrative (at least, before the bombs drop) is based around a small town Kansas family. The drama is heavily sentimentalised, which, as Beth Fischer points out in The Reagan Reversal
, appealed to Reagan's own sensibilities: "it was narrative in style; and, like most of Reagan's own stories, it focused on the lives of ordinary Americans." While lacking the visceral impact of Threads
- which unflinchingly portrayed the effects of radiation and nuclear winter decades after the war - The Day After
's emotionalism struck a deep chord of dread with Reagan, who was moved and disturbed by the drama. He wasn't the only one: just like Threads
in the UK, The Day After
had an immediate public impact. To such an extent, in fact, that Secretary of state George Schultz was compelled to make a TV statement reassuring the American public that the Reagan Administration was doing all it could to avoid the events depicted. The impression that The Day After
had on Reagan was intensified by the Pentagon nuclear war briefing he attended soon after. It was explained to him that the US had targeted over 50,000 sites in the Soviet Union, half of which were civilian locations. Reagan was also informed that, should a nuclear exchange take place, both the USSR and the US, as well as most of Europe, would be totally destroyed. Underpinning this was Reagan's obsession with the Book of Revelations, in which a plague destroys a large army from the East. As Powaski explains: Reagan believed this plague would be nuclear war, citing its description of "the eyes burning from the head and the hair falling from the body and so forth". Much to the dismay of the President's political advisors, who feared that the public expression of such sentiments would jeopardize the administration's nuclear buildup, Reagan repeatedly expressed his fear that world conditions were right for Armageddon to happen.
One of the strands of nuclear command and control theory focuses on cultural elements that effect civilian control of nuclear arms (Strategic Culture Theory). For example, a President would avoid an aggressive, pre-emptive nuclear strike because of the moral
implications of such a move. In his opposition to triggering general war, Reagan took this theory to a new level. Never had a President been so susceptible to the emotional impact of popular culture and populist theology. That these two elements had a real impact on American foreign policy and the survival of Western democracy now seems typical and apt. In Reagan's mind, real Pentagon war briefings blended with fictional accounts of Armageddon. And then:Fear fed fear
In Novemrber 1983 NATO oversaw Able Archer 83, an ambitious military exercise designed to test nuclear-release procedures by simulating a full-scale nuclear offensive. The KGB and the Kremlin - already fully convinced that a US nuclear strike was imminent - feared that Able Archer actually signaled the occasion for a real nuclear strike against the USSR. A number of misread signs encouraged Soviet anxiety. The invasion of Grenada caused a blitz of ciphered messages from the UK as Thatcher and the Queen protested at US treatment of a Commonwealth member, a flurry of top secret exchanges that increased KGB suspicion. Furthermore, NATO forces had been put on a higher state of alert than during any previous war game exercise: codes and radio frequencies changed as the alert status switched from 'conventional' to 'nuclear'. Moscow sent messages to KGB bases and outposts across Europe demanding increased surveillance. From West Germany, the Soviets - now totally susceptible to their own propaganda about Reagan's warlust - received reports that US troops were on a status of high alert. Although these reports were false, the Kremlin decided to put Soviet nuclear forces on a level footing. Soviet bombers lined up on runways. Forces in Poland and East Germany were ordered to prepare for a retaliatory nuclear attack. The Soviets had now reached a critical moment (unknown to NATO and the Americans, who continued the exercise with satisfaction): If Soviet intelligence determined that a counter strike against the Soviet Union was imminent, Soviet "launch-on-attack" strategy called for Moscow to launch its missiles first, before they could be destroyed by incoming US and NATO missiles
(Powaski). In the event, Able Archer demonstrated how leaders incline towards caution in the face of nuclear catastrophe. The Soviet's decided not launch their missiles until the US had launched theirs. They were relieved when Able Archer ended without any missiles being launched at all. Reagan was shocked to learn about the Soviet reaction to this NATO exercise, and convinced that more effective channels of communication now needed to open between the White House and the Kremlin. A week later Reagan had organised the National Security Planning Group to work towards such dialogue. Within the next year George Schultz had convinced the President that further and more effective arms control and reduction was necessary for future global security.
The Reagan reversal didn't immediately end suspicion or hostility: the arms reduction treaties that followed - like the ones that had preceded - tended to be overly complex, realpolitik excercises designed to concede as little as possible to the Soviets. Furthermore, Reagan retained his faith in SDI and this remained an open source of tension between the superpowers. Although Reagan had promised to share SDI technology with the Soviets, administration hardliners like Richard Perle were determined to avoid any cooperation. The Soviet's had no real faith in the Americans' word anyway. Reagan could not diffuse the dangers of the Cold War on his own. To do this he needed Gorbechov.
("Phew. Just in time."
Beth A. Fischer The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War
Ronald E. Powaski Return to Armageddon: The United States and the Nuclear Arms Race, 1981-1999
Martin Walker The Cold WarPart 3: The post-Cold War triumph of military technology, coming in a little while.