The public has heard of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. The USA and the USSR came close to nuclear war.
Twenty-one years later it happened again. Twice.
On September 1, 1983, Korean Airlines flight 007 disappeared over Soviet air space. The official report on both sides of the Iron Curtain was that a Soviet fighter had shot it down. On board was Congressman Larry McDonald, a friend of mine. In May 1976, he told Ron Paul that I was available to work on his staff, and Paul hired me in June. The untold story of KAL 007 is here. It was written by the son-in-law of a victim on the plane.
This story has been suppressed for over 15 years. It was dropped down the memory hole.
The next incident came on September 26. This is from Wikipedia.
On 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow which housed the command center of the Soviet early warning satellites, code-named Oko. Petrov's responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. If notification was received from the early warning systems that inbound missiles had been detected, the Soviet Union's strategy was an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States (launch on warning), specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.
Shortly after midnight, the bunker's computers reported that one intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the United States. Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a first-strike nuclear attack by the United States was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches in order to disable any Soviet means of a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system's reliability had been questioned in the past. Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors or not after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that no missile had been launched. Later, the computers identified four additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov again suspected that the computer system was malfunctioning, despite having no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union's land radar was incapable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon, and waiting for it to positively identify the threat would limit the Soviet Union's response time to a few minutes.
It was subsequently determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites' Molniya orbits, an error later corrected by cross-referencing a geostationary satellite.
In explaining the factors leading to his decision, Petrov cited his belief and training that any U.S. first strike would be massive, so five missiles seemed an illogical start. In addition, the launch detection system was new and in his view not yet wholly trustworthy, while ground radar had failed to pick up corroborative evidence even after several minutes of the false alarm.
The second incident came in November. The USA had begun a sophisticated war game called Able Archer 83. It began on November 7. The USSR's military began to think this was not a war game, that it was preparation for war. This is from a recent article in Slate. It was co-authored by a man who wrote a 2016 book on the incident.
Multiple high-level Soviet officers have confirmed in interviews that Soviet nuclear missile forces were placed on "raised combat alert" during Able Archer 83. At least one account claimed that the alert reached the highest levels of the Soviet military and that Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, chief of the general staff, monitored events from a bunker outside of Moscow. And the U.S. technical sergeant says he received daily briefings showing that the Soviets were increasing their level of military readiness and upping the operational tempo of their forces: "Their posturing [was] rising in some cases by the hour if not the minute." The United States and the Soviet Union had started climbing the escalatory ladder toward war. The question is why they stopped.
This is where the role played by Leonard Perroots, a military intelligence officer, was so critical. At the time of Able Archer 83, the West Virginia native with almost 30 years of service was assistant chief of staff for intelligence for the U.S. Air Force in Europe. While overseeing Able Archer 83, he noted that Soviet forces (the real ones, not the simulated ones) were raising their alert levels. But, instead of responding in kind, Perroots did nothing. Had he elevated the alert level of Western military assets--which would not have been an unreasonable thing to do--the Soviets might well have concluded that the exercise was indeed cover for an attack. Instead, Perroots, acting on instinct, saw that doing nothing would halt any climb up the escalatory ladder. It ended what would become known as the "war scare" and possibly averted a nuclear exchange.
His calm response aside, Perroots was shaken by the episode. So, in January 1989, just before retiring as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he wrote a letter recalling the danger he experienced during Able Archer 83 and outlining his disquiet that the U.S. intelligence community did not give adequate credence to the possibility that the United States and Soviet Union came unacceptably close to nuclear war during Able Archer 83. He sent this letter to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which was shocked into action. Its comprehensive report was based on hundreds of documents and more than 75 interviews with American and British officials.
The PFIAB authors wrote that they hoped their report would prompt "renewed interest, vigorous dialogue, and rigorous analyses of the [war scare]." But the report's high level of classification, and the U.S. government's sluggish declassification process, meant that we have just started to appreciate its conclusions about the dangers of nuclear war through miscalculation. When Perroots died this January, his letter to the PFIAB was still classified--28 years after he had written it.
Two men, Petrov and Perroots, had the good sense to do nothing. They honored this traditional law of bureaucracy: "Don't just do something! Sit there!" It is a good thing that they did.
These stories are not in the textbooks. They should be.