As most people who grew up during the Cold War know, it was a time of tension, to put it mildly, between the United States and the Soviet Union. There were long periods of stability with short periods of high strain – particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and in 1983. The last period is not known by many nor how close the two countries came to nuclear war. Taylor Downing in his book 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink describes how the countries came to the brink of nuclear war.
Downing skillfully and succinctly summarizes Russo-American relations from the end of World War II to the time of President Reagan’s election. He then more deeply explores why relations initially went from bad to worse under Reagan. This exploration looks at the reasons from the perspective of each country.
The strongest part of the book is on how each side misinterpreted the intentions of the other, especially in 1983. Downing uses many examples of how an innocuous decision by one side was completely misinterpreted by the other. For example, the Russian downing of the Korean Airline plane was a break down of the Soviet air defense system and communications. Although the Russians thought the airliner looked similar to an American military plane that was used to spy on the Russians in Siberia, the Americans thought it was another example of Russian cold-blooded murder. Neither side was willing to see why the other reacted the way it did.
I think Downing is guilty of a bit of idealism. He accurately describes the ineptness and out-of-touch leadership under Leonid Brezhnev (later years), Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. But, I think he portrays Mikhail Gorbachev as too perfect. Gorbachev was the impetus for détente with the West, but he discounts Reagan’s contribution to this détente. The events of 1983 convinced Reagan to tone down the rhetoric and reach an agreement with Gorbachev. It took both men to make compromises to bring a lasting peace.
1983 is a great piece of Cold War history.