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Who Won the Cold War?

By the middle of the Carter administration the American government had reached general agreement that the Soviets were mounting a major effort to achieve strategic nuclear superiority, including an ability to disarm the United States in a first strike. Perhaps most alarming was the discovery in the 1970s that the Soviets were rapidly improving the accuracy of their ICBMs and that more than “enough” of them were actually targeted on US missile fields in the Midwest—“enough,” that is, to target each US missile with a Soviet warhead. No strategic planner would aim something as powerful and expensive as a missile at another missile unless he expected to find it there when his own arrived—that is, in a first strike. But the details are of secondary importance. It is the mood of threat and runaway growth in hardware that defines the moment.

The American response to the Russian challenge included not only new weapons of our own but a new war-fighting strategy (Presidential Directive 59). It further included hardened command and control systems, elaborate new warning mechanisms, an ever-tighter loop between early warning and any decision to retaliate. A major change in military strategy, like the moment an ocean liner begins to pull away from the dock, is a public event, impossible to hide. The Soviets knew all about it, but far from calming themselves with the reflection that after all the Americans were bound to respond eventually to the Soviet buildup, they began to fear the worst.

It was in this climate of heightened fear and apprehension late in the Carter administration that the Amer-ican nuclear command and control structure was upset by a series of false alarms—erroneous reports from technical systems that an attack was underway. In the most dramatic of these episodes the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), from its bomb-proof post deep beneath Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, informed Colonel (later General) William Odom, military assistant to Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, that the Soviet Union had launched 220 missiles targeted on the United States.

Odom, at three o’clock in the morning, called Brzezinski, who prepared himself to notify the President in time for the US to retaliate—that is, within three to seven minutes after the Soviet launch. Soon Odom called again to confirm the bad news, adding that the revised, now-correct number of attacking Soviet missiles was 2,200—the long-dreaded, all-out, Pearl Harbor-style first strike intended to destroy American missiles in their silos. Brzezinski did not wake his wife; he was convinced everyone would soon be dead. But just before he was about to call President Carter, Odom called a third time to say it was all a mistake—someone at NORAD had loaded the computer-controlled warning system with exercise tapes used for simulating war games. Nothing to worry about! Brzezinski went back to bed.

The Soviets quickly learned of the incident and ought to have been angry that some glitch in American technical wizardry nearly destroyed their country. But they took the danger one step further, adding a paranoiac spin. “CIA later learned” (Gates’s code phrase for knowledge secretly obtained) that the Soviets had concluded the false alarms were nothing of the kind, but rather part of a diabolical plan to lull Soviet watchers and lay the ground for an eventual surprise attack.

The rhetoric of the early years of the Reagan administration only exacerbated Soviet fears. Some of Reagan’s closest advisers, reportedly including Vice-President George Bush, had expressed public confidence that even a nuclear war would have a winner; “with enough shovels” to dig homemade shelters, one theorist suggested, most civilians would pull through. In office, Reagan slashed domestic spending and devoted uncountable new billions to defense, especially to strategic programs. In March 1983 he delivered two speeches that made the hair rise on the back of Soviet necks; in the first he condemned the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and three weeks later he outlined an ambitious program for building space-based defense systems, soon called Star Wars. Civilians debated whether anybody could afford such a system or whether it could ever work, but defense theorists all knew that space-based defenses were well-suited only to one job—mopping up the ragged retaliatory missiles that would be fired by strategic forces devastated by a first strike. The tough talk in Washington was actually aimed at rallying Congress to support politically difficult cuts in domestic spending to free up funds for Star Wars; but the Soviets did not appreciate such nuances.

Few in Moscow took a darker view of the bomb talk than the chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov; according to Gates, he warned a KGB conference in 1981 that the United States was actively preparing for nuclear war. In the fall of 1983, when Andropov had succeeded Leonid Brezhnev at the head of the Soviet Union but was himself already dying of kidney disease, his fears focused on a NATO command post exercise called “Able Archer” scheduled for early November. Its purpose was to test NATO’s ability to meet a military challenge requiring a nuclear response—that is, to run through the communications drill, from warning through decision to response. Of course, no actual nuclear weapons would be involved, but the electronic signature of the exercise—the crackle of messages over wire and airwaves, what the Soviets would see and hear—would naturally look just like the real thing.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact both routinely conducted military exercises and had learned to treat them calmly, but in this case, according to Gates, other technical factors contributed to the state of alarm. The following March the British, drawing on reports from their ace Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky, informed the Americans that the panicked Russians had seriously feared that Able Archer was no exercise but a genuine prelude to war. It was crazy—but not so crazy; this is how complex systems fail. When Gorbachev brought a new style and tone to the Kremlin a couple of years later even the CIA was relieved, “feeling,” according to Gates, “that the U.S.-Soviet confrontation had gotten a bit too hot in recent years.”3

Able Archer was about as close as the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to nuclear war accidentally, just as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which resulted in Khrushchev’s humiliating backdown, was about as close as the two sides ever got to war in the usual way, through confrontation and miscalculation. In neither case was war all that close. The Soviets never went on nuclear alert during the Able Archer episode, and the 3:00 AM false alarm was not backed up by other warning systems. The computer-generated report should have been preceded by satellite detection of hot missile launches and followed by confirming radar reports; the fact that neither occurred meant that a presidential order to retaliate was never close. But those nearest misses were sobering all the same, because the commanders of strategic forces on both sides understood in their bones that nothing could stop an authorized execute order, once given, short of an act of God. “Theologians of deterrence”—another nuke-speak phrase of yesteryear—might talk of “exchanges” of thousands of warheads, but the political leaders of both sides knew that even one bomb on one city, as McGeorge Bundy once observed, would be an unimaginable catastrophe.

It is in this fact that we may locate the central paradox of the cold war, the fact that catastrophe was never far, and war was never close. In retrospect it seems clear that it was the political not the military relations of the United States and the Soviet Union that were unstable. The initial onset of the cold war, the “spirit of Camp David” under Eisenhower, the Berlin and Cuba crises, détente under Nixon and Kissinger, Reagan’s renewed rhetorical assault on “the evil empire”—the mood of the relationship swiveled violently from one decade to the next. But the face-to-face nuclear confrontation at ever higher levels of potential destructiveness was nevertheless astonishingly stable; neither side was ever in a position to push the other around, and neither treated the military power of the other with less than sober respect.


Is it really big enough?” the Danish physicist Niels Bohr asked J. Robert Oppenheimer in December 1943, the day he arrived at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the Americans were secretly inventing the new bomb. Oppenheimer understood him immediately—Bohr meant, was it big enough to make war impossible? The answer to this question hung in suspense until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gates’s account of the last half of the cold war shows the importance of luck—mostly good luck as it turned out. But if Brezhnev’s successor, the hard-nosed commissar Yuri Andropov, once known as the butcher of Budapest for his part in putting down the 1956 rebellion, “had been younger and healthier,” Gates writes, “the odds are great that we would still be face-to-face with the Soviet Union, still militarily powerful.”

This is true, but it would not have made much difference in the long run. Andropov’s brightest idea for restoring the vigor of the Soviet state was to send the KGB into the streets to round up AWOL citizens standing with their string bags in food queues instead of “working.” Andropov might have kept the lid on for another few years, but the factors that precipitated the Soviet collapse under Gorbachev were not the sort simply to go away. Now that the Soviet Union has disappeared Gates, along with everybody else, can see that it was doomed to disappear. It was only a question of time.

What gave us the time was not the flurry of anti-Soviet hooks and jabs of the Reagan-Casey years, which was only cold war business as usual with a modest increase in vigor. What gave us the time was the bomb. Gates spent a big part of his working life keeping track of Soviet weaponry and making sure that the American threat to use nuclear weapons remained credible. Throughout the cold war there were many occasions, especially in the early years, when the two sides might have gone to war. Just what stopped them can never be established with certainty, but one important factor surely was fear of the consequences. Hiroshima left no mystery about that. But what would happen to that fear if the threat to use nuclear weapons were removed? Many critics (of whom I was one) believed that the arms race itself, extended over decades, would make war inevitable, but that is not the way things turned out. It is Gates’s purpose to convince us that official American nuclear policy, despite the many criticisms that seemed convincing at the time, in fact helped bring the cold war to a peaceful conclusion. This is a hard point to admit for those of us who spent years defending opposing views, and it may never be established conclusively, but I believe that Gates is right.

In 1947 George Kennan, writing as “Mr. X” in Foreign Affairs, argued that war with the Soviet Union was not inevitable; if the United States could only “contain” the natural expansionism of the Soviet Union then the process of time would gradually alter and soften the Soviet state. Kennan has often written in subsequent years that he did not intend an exclusively military form of containment, and that he certainly would never have proposed such a dangerous American reliance above all on nuclear arms. But time is what containment took and time is what the fear of nuclear war gave us. All other factors in the outcome of the cold war fade beside that one. So the answer to Gates’s question is not the Americans, not the Russians, but the bomb. The bomb won.

  1. 3

    Raymond L. Garthoff, in Detente and Confrontation (Brookings, 1990), has argued that Soviet misperceptions went much deeper, leading them to interpret all US strategic programs of the 1970s and 1980s as a new aggressiveness preparing for war. According to Garthoff, the Soviets felt they had done nothing to trigger the American buildup; Afghanistan was “an irrelevant factor” and the new Soviet theater nuclear forces in Europe did not justify the NATO response in the 1980s. Garthoff further believes that American intelligence exaggerated the Soviet buildup. See Chapter 22, pp. 882-887.

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