1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink by Taylor Downing

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.

1983 Book Cover 1983
Taylor Downing
Da Capo Press
April 24, 2018

A riveting, real-life thriller about 1983--the year tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union nearly brought the world to the point of nuclear Armageddon The year 1983 was an extremely dangerous one--more dangerous than 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the United States, President Reagan vastly increased defense spending, described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," and launched the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative to shield the country from incoming missiles. Seeing all this, Yuri Andropov, the paranoid Soviet leader, became convinced that the US really meant to attack the Soviet Union and he put the KGB on high alert, looking for signs of an imminent nuclear attack. When a Soviet plane shot down a Korean civilian jet, Reagan described it as "a crime against humanity." And Moscow grew increasingly concerned about America's language and behavior. Would they attack? The temperature rose fast. In November the West launched a wargame exercise, codenamed "Abel Archer," that looked to the Soviets like the real thing. With Andropov's finger inching ever closer to the nuclear button, the world was truly on the brink. This is an extraordinary and largely unknown Cold War story of spies and double agents, of missiles being readied, intelligence failures, misunderstandings, and the panic of world leaders. With access to hundreds of astonishing new documents, Taylor Downing tells for the first time the gripping but true story of how near the world came to nuclear war in 1983.

About the author

Jeff Grim

Jeff Grim has been a reader all of his life. He has had a particular interest in military history, any war at any time. His fascination with military history has brought him to an interest in historical fiction where the history comes alive with fictitious heroes and villains. Recently, Jeff has become interested in historical mysteries set in various time periods.

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