This deeply researched book is written with verve, and serves as a study in the messy intricacies of nuclear doctrine and the utter incapacity of humans to faithfully control awesome arsenals of unfathomable destructive force ... This 'Reagan-centric' view of how the Cold War ended is part of a growing trend in scholarship. But it tends to shortchange Mikhail Gorbachev’s arguably more influential role in winding down the Cold War, as well as decades-long developments...in explaining the decline of the Soviet-U.S. standoff. Nonetheless, Ambinder shows Reagan and his team moving deliberately and thoughtfully to ease tensions in the wake of the war scare, contributing to our understanding of Reagan’s role in this milestone. At times, The Brink moves so quickly from scene to scene and involves so many characters, plotlines and acronyms (SIOP, RYAN, NMCC) that the arc of the story can be hard to track; the themes of the book get obscured in the whipsaw-like narration. Ultimately, however, The Brink conveys not just the causes of the 1983 war scare but also how control of nuclear weaponry is inherently a flawed human undertaking.
The Brink tells the grim story of the Reagan-era moment when the USSR thought it was about to be attacked and prepared to retaliate. As Soviet paranoia increased, a South Korean airliner, KAL007, that had strayed illegally for more than two hours into Soviet air space was shot down in September, killing all 269 people on board. The Russians mistook it for an American spy plane that had been in the area a short time earlier. Taylor Downing is a historian and film-maker who has interviewed the Soviet pilot who downed the plane and several other US and Soviet military and political figures from the time. Downing explains that the head of US Air Force Intelligence, which was monitoring the Soviet commanders’ and pilots’ messages, quickly realised the Soviets had made a terrible blunder. But among western politicians 'the sense of moral outrage built up like water behind a dam,' he writes, 'waiting to burst forth when the floodgates were opened' ... Marc Ambinder covers ground with...jumbled narrative, but his book has interesting details. In his wallet the US president carries the 'biscuit', a wedge of white laminated plastic, a little thicker than a credit card. It contains several alphanumeric combinations, designed to prove the person ordering nuclear war is actually the president. 'It’s right next to my driver’s licence', Reagan used to say, a bit sheepishly ... For all the president’s outrage over Soviet activity, at least until Mikhail Gorbachev emerged, Ambinder reports Reagan’s instinctive unwillingness to take part in the regular war games and face the prospect of one day having to press the button for real. His staff wondered if he ever would.
Most historians agree that the world came closest to a nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when President John Kennedy discovered that the Soviet Union had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba and warned Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove them—or else. For two weeks messages flashed back and forth between Moscow and Washington. As tension mounted and U.S. forces, including nuclear-loaded B-52s, were placed on high alert, the Soviets blinked, agreeing to dismantle the sites and ship their missiles back to Russia ... At times, Mr. Ambinder’s book reads like a Tom Clancy novel, as when Soviet Capt. Viktor Tkachenko, deep in an ICBM bunker, and 26-year-old U.S. Capt. Lee Trolan, in charge of a dozen nuclear weapons, are described handling the escalating tension. We watch Capt. Trolan guarding nuclear weapons with six men for every ten he should have had, working seven days a week. 'If you asked me then whether I thought we were going to have a shooting war with the Warsaw Pact . . . I would have said, yes.' As for Capt. Tkachenko, he had heard rumors that 'the Americans would wait until the eve of a major Soviet holiday,' when ordinary Soviets were relaxed and happy, 'to launch World War III.' He returned again and again to the critical question: Is 'Able Archer 83' a normal military exercise or the incomprehensible—preparations for a nuclear strike?
[In The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983, ], Mr. Ambinder provides chilling details about Cold War intelligence gathering, nuclear codes, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) of the United States and the White House Emergency Plan (WHEP) ... Mr. Ambinder also reminds us that 'enough hasn’t changed between 1983 and now.'
Stories about disasters averted often provide more drama and sheer terror than those that actually happen. So it is with Marc Ambinder’s The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983, a detailed account of a nuclear holocaust that never happened ... Reagan believed Soviet leadership had contemplated a possible winnable nuclear war, just as there were U.S. advisers who believed the same thing. Each nation looked at the other as a rival bent on the other's destruction. If a nuclear strike could somehow accomplish that without guaranteeing mutual destruction, so be it. By the middle of 1983, it seemed that someone in either Moscow or Washington would take that chance ... Ambinder infuses this drama with a rapid pace involving multiple players in the White House, Kremlin and missile sites throughout the world, including on the fields of West Germany, where U.S. commanders expected a Soviet ground attack that could trigger the use of nuclear weapons.
On Nov. 7, 1983, NATO commenced a five-day military exercise called Able Archer 83. In simulating a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe and a NATO nuclear response, Able Archer scared the Soviet Union into believing that an actual U.S.–led attack was imminent. Thus the Russians readied their nuclear forces and placed military units in Eastern Europe on alert, bringing the two superpowers to the edge of war. Ambinder, a former White House correspondent...chronicles the road to this near catastrophe ... The book features interviews with government officials and spies who were on the scene, and Ambinder writes in the appealing style of Tom Clancy. Yet he compromises the narrative with short chapters that bounce from place to place and a frustrating tendency to omit dates. Moreover, the author employs an extensive cast of characters and a plethora of acronyms (although he does provide lists for both). The fulcrum of the book—the Able Archer exercise and the Soviet reaction to it—is somewhat anticlimactic.
Journalist Ambinder’s account of a serious threat of global annihilation—stemming from a 1983 NATO war exercise—is spellbinding. Ambinder lays out the grave weaknesses in America’s nuclear command-and-control structure in the early 1980s: the process the president was supposed to use to make decisions about whether to launch nuclear missiles was much too long, and the U.S.’s early warning system was unreliable ... While disaster was averted, Ambinder illuminates the fragility of existing safeguards against an unintentional launch, a timely topic given concerns about Iran and North Korea. He also walks the reader through the Reagan administration’s and the Soviet government’s respective internal debates about diplomatic and military strategy. This is a masterpiece of recent history.