He was interviewed by Charles Carrigan on January 27. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What did you learn from your research about the risk of nuclear war that’s relevant today?
I learned that the risk of nuclear war through miscalculation is as large and is as dangerous as through a world leader deciding to begin a nuclear war. I think the more nuclear weapons there are, the greater the risk of accidental nuclear war.
Unlike the Cuban missile crisis, is it fair to say that no one at the time of Able Archer had any idea of the danger?
The public knew that the tensions were very dangerous, but only very few members of the U.S. and British intelligence elites knew of the danger from Able Archer 83. There are documents in my book showing that these elites actually sanitized intelligence reports so other people within their governments and NATO allies did not know. The reason for this, I think, was partially to not inflame the public’s antipathy toward nuclear weapons and further embolden the nuclear freeze movement and also because there was strong interest in further deploying intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe. If the danger became public, it might have stopped these goals. Essentially, intelligence agencies obscured this danger. So, few people in the government, much less the public, knew.
What was the effect of this episode on President Ronald Reagan when he finally saw how close we had come to accidental nuclear war?
According to documents, Reagan definitely knew by March 1984, and there’s some possible evidence, but no smoking gun, that he knew immediately after the exercise. The documents that would best reveal this, including National Security Planning Group meeting minutes, remain classified, so we don’t know. In his memoirs, he hints that he found out right away. He has a phrase that there is classified information about nuclear war that he still can’t share, and it had a large effect on him. Reagan was always a nuclear abolitionist. This bolstered his hatred of nuclear weapons, and I think pushed him toward the Reykjavik summit and his desire to work with Soviet leader [Mikhail] Gorbachev.
What led to your interest in Able Archer 83?
As an undergrad, I knew I wanted to study history. I remember watching the Berlin Wall come down as a child and that pushed me toward studying Cold War history. At Lewis & Clark College, my minor was Russian language. So, I was in a good place to study the Cold War; and this seemed like something that had been mentioned in memoirs and other secondary sources just a little bit at the time, around the early 2000s. There were no primary source documents, so I kept digging. I remember going to the Reagan Library and saying, “This folder on Able Archer is classified. How can I get it unclassified?” The archivist actually kind of sneered and laughed at me and said, “Oh, well, do this, but it’ll never happen.” That actually got me so angry that I started studying how to use the Freedom of Information Act, and then I came to the experts at the National Security Archive. They hired me as an intern, and then they couldn’t get rid of me.
How much of this information was available when you began?
There were a couple of very brief mentions. In the Washington Times, there was about a one-paragraph story, essentially a CIA leak, in 1984. No one noticed. It came into the public view in the very late 1980s because a key Soviet spy who had revealed the danger to the British and, in turn, to the United States and Reagan wrote a book that gave his part of the story. After that, there were a couple other memoirs that mentioned it, but memoirs are not the greatest historical sources. All of the actual documents, the thousands of pages including the best ones, which I published in the book, were secret. We went from having kind of memoir accounts to now having the actual documents so that readers can decide for themselves.
What were the biggest challenges in getting these documents declassified?
Well, the main challenges are getting the agencies to acquiesce to the public’s right to know. Every agency has a classification guide that says what can and can’t be classified, and some stuff’s black and white, like agent names, but a lot of stuff is gray. The trick is getting someone with enough bureaucratic power and good judgment to decide on this “gray material” and release it. One place that’s very good, that ultimately released a key document after I’d been fighting for it for 12 years, is a group at the National Archives called the Interagency Security Classifications Review Panel (ISCAP). The joke is it’s ice cap, and they melt classified documents out to the public.
You tried to get something declassified in Russia as well?
I have tried in Russia and tried in Great Britain. There is some good stuff that’s been declassified from the British Ministry of Defence, but the British Cabinet Office is much more tight lipped and improperly uses its catch-all exemption. I’ve also done research in Russia, and there is actually a surprising amount of information available. The presidential archives are fairly open. In April, I’m fortunate to work on a Nuclear Proliferation International History Project fellowship to Odessa University to search the Ukrainian archives, which, according to reports, are very open.
What was the one thing that most surprised you during your research, either from a specific document or something about the research itself?
The biggest surprise was ISCAP’s declassification of the key president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board report. Essentially, that document is a retrospective all-source intelligence review. So they had access to everything—interviewed over 100 people and had access to all the documents to craft a 100-page review of the 1983 war scare and Able Archer. I’ll never forget the email that came in—it was actually on my birthday. I got the document and just tore through it quickly and saw that it was largely unredacted and then started reading the substance. That’s the one document that I fought for 12 years to get. I’ve never had a greater feeling getting a document declassified than that one.
What were the key factors that produced conditions in which the war scare happened?
There are the ones that people know about: end of détente, Reagan’s rhetoric, rearmament. But the most important one to me, the one that I study the most, is that as both adversaries improved their nuclear arsenals and decreased launch time and decreased readiness time, they actually increased the nuclear danger. So the key factor, I think, was the runaway arms race. There’s some good evidence that, on both sides, the arms manufacturers, the people making missiles, cared primarily about the missile factories staying open and building new products. So they built missiles that could devastate Europe.
Do you see similar conditions in place in certain countries, not necessarily just the United States and Russia, but smaller nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan?
The one that jumps out, actually, is North Korea. Interestingly, North Korea, within the past year, actually stated that it may use its nuclear weapons pre-emptively, which fortunately invoked a very strong condemnation from Russia. I also believe that the world today is much safer than it was during 1983. The key reason is that, despite important accusations about violations of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty by both sides, there aren’t hundreds of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe on a hair-trigger that gives leaders four minutes to decide whether to launch, either under attack or at launch-on-warning.
Do you see increased multipolarity as potentially increasing the risk of miscalculation?
Yes. The more countries that have nuclear weapons, the more nuclear weapons that exist, and the more people with the authority to order or to launch nuclear weapons without orders, the more the danger of miscalculation. I am convinced that it’s much more likely that the larger risk of nuclear war is through accident or miscalculation rather than a decision by Pakistan and India, to use your example, to start a nuclear war against each other.