wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

John Lewis Gaddis

The Cold War

It was an 'emperor's new clothes' question, which no one else in a position of responsibility in Washington over the past two decades had dared to ask.

The reason was that stability in Soviet-American relations had come to be prized above all else. To attempt to build defenses against offensive weapons, the argument ran, could upset the delicate equilibrium upon which deterrence was supposed to depend. That made sense if one thought in static terms—if one assumed that the nuclear balance defined the Cold War and would continue to do so indefinitely. Reagan, however, thought in evolutionary terms. He saw that the Soviet Union had lost its ideological appeal, that it was losing whatever economic strength it once had, and that its survival as a superpower could no longer be taken for granted. That made stability, in his view, an outmoded, even immoral, priority. If the U.S.S.R. was crumbling, what could justify continuing to hold East Europeans hostage to the Brezhnev Doctrine—or, for that matter, continuing to hold Americans hostage to the equally odious concept of Mutual Assured Destruction? Why not hasten the disintegration?

That is what the Strategic Defense Initiative was intended to do. It challenged the argument that vulnerability could provide security. It called into question the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a center-piece of SALT I. It exploited the Soviet Union's backwardness in computer technology, a field in which the Russians knew that they could not keep up. And it undercut the peace movement by framing the entire project in terms of lowering the risk of nuclear war: the ultimate purpose of SDI, Reagan insisted, was not to freeze nuclear weapons, but rather to render them 'impotent and obsolete.'

This last theme reflected something else about Reagan that almost everybody at the time missed: he was the only nuclear abolitionist ever to have been president of the United States. He made no secret of this, but the possibility that a right-wing Republican anti-communist pro-military chief executive could also be an anti-nuclear activist defied so many stereotypes that hardly anyone noticed Reagan's repeated promises, as he had put it in the 'evil empire' speech, 'to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world's nuclear arsenals and one day, with God's help, their total elimination.'

Reagan was deeply committed to SDI: it was not a bargaining chip to give up in future negotiations. That did not preclude, though, using it as a bluff: the United States was years, even decades, away from developing a missile defense capability, but Reagan's speech persuaded the increasingly frightened Soviet leaders that this was about to happen. They were convinced, Dobrynin recalled, 'that the great technological potential of the United States had scored again and treated Reagan's statement as a real threat.' Having exhausted their country by catching up in offensive missiles, they suddenly faced a new round of competition demanding skills they had no hope of mastering. And the Americans seemed not even to have broken into a sweat.

The reaction, in the Kremlin, approached panic. Andropov had concluded, while still head of the K.G.B., that the new administration in Washington might be planning a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. 'Reagan is unpredictable,' he warned. 'You should expect anything from him.' There followed a two-year intelligence alert, with agents throughout the world ordered to look for evidence that such preparations were under way. The tension became so great that when a South Korean airliner accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace over Sakhalin on September 1, 1983, the military authorities in Moscow assumed the worst and ordered it shot down, killing 269 civilians, 63 of them Americans. Unwilling to admit the mistake, Andropov maintained that the incident had been a 'sophisticated provocation organized by the U.S. special services.'

Then something even scarier happened that attracted no public notice. The United States and its NATO allies had for years carried out fall military exercises, but the ones that took place in November—designated 'Able Archer 83'—involved a higher level of leadership participation than was usual. The Soviet intelligence agencies kept a close watch on these maneuvers, and their reports caused Andropov and his top aides to conclude—briefly—that a nuclear attack was imminent. It was probably the most dangerous moment since the Cuban missile crisis, and yet no one in Washington knew of it until a well-placed spy in the K.G.B.'s London headquarters alerted British intelligence, which passed the information along to the Americans.

That definitely got Reagan's attention. Long worried about the danger of a nuclear war, the president had already initiated a series of quiet contacts with Soviet officials—mostly unreciprocated—aimed at defusing tensions. The Able Archer crisis convinced him that he had pushed the Russians far enough, that it was time for another speech. It came at the beginning of Orwell's fateful year, on January 16, 1984, but Big Brother was nowhere to be seen. Instead, in lines only he could have composed, Reagan suggested placing the Soviet-American relationship in the capably reassuring hands of Jim and Sally and Ivan and Anya. One White House staffer, puzzled by the hand-written addendum to the prepared text, exclaimed a bit too loudly: 'Who wrote this shit?'

Once again, the old actor's timing was excellent. Andropov died the following month, to be succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, an enfeebled geriatric so zombie-like as to be beyond assessing intelligence reports, alarming or not. Having failed to prevent the NATO missile deployments, Foreign Minister Gromyko soon grudgingly agreed to resume arms control negotiations. Meanwhile Reagan was running for re-election as both a hawk and a dove: in November he trounced his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale. And when Chernenko died in March, 1985, at the age of seventy-four, it seemed an all-too-literal validation of Reagan's predictions about 'last pages' and historical 'ash-heaps.' Seventy-four himself at the time, the president had another line ready: 'How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians, if they keep dying on me?'