Brink, Kubrick, Click
Life, thy name is Caprice. If there’s one thing that I disbelieve in absolutely, it’s the notion of any lasting general safety in existence. No matter how civilized civilization seems, or how stable stability appears, I expect accident, disaster, meltdown and widespread panic every day. Of course, I don’t tremble and gibber in constant fear in some dark room with boarded windows, but a thick stratum of distrust in utopian equilibrium is always right under my skin. Cooperation, recreation, business, politics and even art all happen on shifting sand sprinkled across precarious tectonic plates quivering over the main vent of a gargantuan volcano. Consider Stanley Kubrick, who had a very good reason for refusing air travel. I’m sure he knew that planes’ natural tendencies are to fall, which is the case for all afloat or flying things, and that airline workers are unimaginably infallible, as are all human beings. Fliers entrust everything to pilots. Life is a big airplane, people. Think about that.
So, of course, I was smitten by Marc Ambinder’s The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983 when I first noticed it. “The Brink” perfectly sums up the gloomy metaphysic I just spieled – and nuclear power gone awry is the apotheosis of Apocalypse, isn’t it? We get occasional (but steady) reminders of the basic volatility and awesome risk of such power all the time: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the NORAD computer glitch of 1979, the Three Mile Island fiasco, the Chernobyl disaster, the Fukushima meltdowns, et al. I’m sure there are many such incidents that we don’t know about, and I stress that we had no idea of the cruciality of the famous ones while they were happening. (Quite by grim coincidence, as I type I’m listening to a 1A interview with Rob Schneier, author of Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World.)
Public ignorance of impending mass doom was the case in the United States in 1983, during Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term and in the midst of a NATO military exercise in Europe called Able Archer 83. It’s this scenario that Ambinder covers with engrossing detail and astute insight in The Brink. Kubrick lampooned the false sanity and high-stakes reverberations of government decisions (and pathologies) in Dr. Strangelove, but this true story has a nicer conclusion – for now.
The book’s epigraph is taken from President Reagan wondering if the Old Testament prophecies of Armageddon were being fulfilled, as told to American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Executive Director Thomas Dine: “I find myself wondering if, if we’re the generation that’s going to see that come about.” Later in the text Ambinder writes:
Several of [Reagan’s] closest aides…would conclude that Reagan adopted an urgency about nuclear abolition because he imputed to history a direction that was guided by unseen forces. One of them was Satan; the devil’s chosen vessel was the Soviet Union; his chosen instruments: nuclear weapons.
Reagan is still seen by many as a hawkish flirter with nuclear annihilation due to blind despisal of commies, but, as any extensive study reveals, and as Ambinder shows in The Brink, Reagan was much more thoughtful about and wary of nuclear showdown than many narratives claim. The 1980s is when the Cold War turned potentially fatally hot for, really, the first time since 1962 and sparked a real-life drama starring big names such as Alexander Haig, George Schultz, Caspar Weinberger, John Poindexter, Oliver North, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbechev. And at a NATO missile base in West Germany’s Killianstadten in 1983, the lead role was filled by Captain Lee Trolan, who was in charge of guarding W31 warheads in the Fulda Gap, an area that was, in Ambinder’s words, “ground zero for World War III.” In a DEFCON 1 event, Trolan had the authority to release nuclear warheads for both the U.S. and non-U.S. ally forces.
NATO’s Able Archer 83 exercise simulated the transfer of American custodianship of nuclear warheads to European use in the event of a real nuclear war from the enemy Warsaw Pact. One day, probably while I was “safe and secure” in elementary school, Trolan received an Emergency War Order. Thinking it was only part of the exercise, Trolan deciphered the incoming message and became suspicious at its odd brevity and outdated format. He checked with a Heidelberg-based colonel who said that the message hadn’t been sent from there. Meanwhile, in a missile-armed Soviet bunker near Moscow, a General Colonel Ivan Yesin of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces “had never felt closer to war.”
In his gripping introduction to The Brink, Ambinder observes that “a nuclear priesthood gave order to the earth after World War II.” “Decent intelligence, as much as good sense, was the nuclear priesthood’s building force,” he continues. “Its clergy like to tell itself that ‘under attack,’ or ‘warning,’ meant that there would be unambiguous evidence that missiles were on their way…” The high-stakes balancing act that is supposed to maintain good sense and avoid global conflagration is based on what Ambinder calls “brittle brinkmanship,” which was at work in the true story of 1983’s nuclear close call, a story that shows “how supple, flexible, and compassionate political leadership triumphed” and cataclysm was evaded.
As well as revealing a clearer-headed, if not dove-ish, Ronald Reagan, at least in regard to nuclear-related Cold War strategy, than often is shown, The Brink provides truer, realistic portrayals of key Soviet political/military actors. Rather than a hive-mind of foaming-at-the-mouth psychopaths, Ambinder shows us individuals with just as much reluctance toward destruction and fear of mass casualties as you or I have. For instance, Brezhnev reportedly blanched with terror when Colonel General Andrei Danilevich shared a nuclear-war assessment with him. This helped inspire Brezhnev to cooperate with President Nixon to realize the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty in 1972, though it ultimately failed.
A huge concern back in the later 1970s was how the U.S. President fit into America’s nuclear-war contingency. As it stood, the Prez had much less than five minutes to decide to unleash nuclear weapons once notified. By the time Jimmy Carter sat at the helm, “human error was rife throughout the supposedly fail-safe nuclear command and control system” and “warning was an illusion.” Carter eventually devised Presidential Directive 58, which “called upon the Pentagon to study the feasibility of establishing an ‘anywhere’ presidency.” But that didn’t establish a truly sound Plan B, as Ronald Reagan learned when he became Commander in Chief.
Shocked by the magnitude of predicted disaster in the event of nuclear attack, Reagan became concerned about what his role should be. Considering the problem of president/vice-president survival in the event of a nuclear attack, he wanted to remain at the White House “to try to solve the problem,” while George Bush would flee in the helicopter. Ambinder presents the frightful status at the time:
The soundness and reliability of nuclear command and control was largely a myth, a just-so story, designed to give everyone from American voters to their presidents a sense of comfort that the requirements on this side of the globe for mutually assured destruction to work in favor of peace…exist, pre-packaged in the White House situation room.
What kicked me in the neck hardest in The Brink was an account of the accidental shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by the Soviets on September 1, 1983. 45 minutes prior to that plane’s obliteration, as part of a mission called Cobra Ball, a U.S. Boeing RC-135 flew over the ocean near the Kamchatka Peninsula to photograph a Soviet missile-test site. Apparently thinking that they were on to the Cobra Ball plane, the Soviets actually ended up tracking Flight 007 instead – and then: blammo. Over two weeks after the airliner’s unfortunate demise, the Russian Ground Command and Control Center’s engineer of combat algorithms, who oversaw the Serpukhov-15 bunker in Kurilovo, where early-warning monitoring went on around the clock, had to react quickly and wisely when five incoming-missile alerts came in. “His instinct told him this alarm was a mistake,” writes Ambinder. “He didn’t know why it was a mistake, but he knew. It had to be.” Luckily, the engineer went with his gut, and the seeming American attack turned out to be caused by cloud reflections in the Wyoming sky over F.E. Warren Air Force Base. See what happens while we’re blissfully scrolling through Facebook or sitting on the toilet – or doing both at the same time?
Needless to say, the Soviets closely monitored Able Archer and labored to discern whether or not this was mere war game or real thing, particularly worried over potential invasion by nuclear-equipped B-52s (which were in reality armed with only conventional warheads). Skittish and, I guess, determined to flex their muscles, the tense Soviets launched a missile in the direction of the Arctic Circle. A Captain Viktor Tkachenko expected the ignition of World War III by the Americans at his bunker, while a General Colonel Ivan Yesin expected the same in another Soviet bunker. Half of Soviets’ SS-20 Pioneer missiles were deployed for wartime readiness and “if the order came, Yesin’s men could have launched the missiles in 2 minutes and 30 seconds.” This is around the time that Captain Trolan received those ill-formatted Emergency Action Messages and got freaked the eff out. He eventually guessed that the Soviets were poking for clarification and might have been considering preemptive action to preempt their apparently planned preemptive action. NATO moved from DEFCON 4 to DEFCON 3 by November 11th. By the time DEFCON 2 was reached, this was almost completely believed to be a real event, not part of the exercise. Without a doubt, the world was on the brink. Ambinder writes:
In the past, when either side exercised its strategic forces, the other side watched…but there was one thing that had never been done, because to do it in the middle of an exercise would break the logic chain that both kept the superpowers in perpetual cold conflict and prevented it from turning hot. They never counter-exercised to the same degree, ever…It was plainly, nakedly dangerous, and both sides had understood this for thirty years.
Emphasizing the ultra-dangerous tension of that time, Army Captain Stephen Schwalbe said that “all that you needed for war at that moment was someone to drop a match down in a dry forest.” Civilians and countless government employees across the globe had no awareness of the lethality of that match. We went about our business or amusement, trusting the pilots of the nations.
Another thing that goes on that we know almost nothing about is the intricate, deadly web of spying all over the world. The Brink tracks some key spies who were active in the 1980s, particularly the brave covert adventures of KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky, who became disloyal to Sovietism and began espionage for the British. Anyone who’s interested in how he fared should get and read the book.
By the way, my cartoonish misconception of nuclear bombs’ fragility and explosion-readiness was, relatively thankfully, corrected by this surprising and somewhat reassuring passage:
The nuclear warhead itself was pretty safe; you could drop it on its nose and it wouldn’t go off. You could try to destroy it with explosives, or with a bullet, but the worst that would happen is that the explosives inside the warhead would detonate, killing everyone within 50 yards or so and leaking plutonium…[T]he arming and fusing mechanism were so precisely engineered by 1982 that a thief who didn’t belong to a nation-state wouldn’t know what to do with it and might have used it as a giant doorstop.
Meeting > Agreeing?
I was most absorbed by The Brink‘s coverage of how President Reagan handled the heavy responsibility of his office in relation to the Soviets in general. Much of Reagan’s strategy and the surrounding perception of it remind me of current-day geopolitics and President Trump, which I’m almost certain was Ambinder’s intention. Reading that “Reagan would always say that he would not reward Soviet intransigence, but he was given to gestural politics that seemed always to give the Soviets a way to save face” made me think of Trump’s contradictory public gestures toward Kim Jong Un, and Trump’s diplomatic style certainly comes to mind when reading that “sometimes, Reagan seemed too impulsive, even too confident in his own abilities just to talk the Soviets down…”
Familiar with both favorable and critical Reagan biographies such as Edmund Morris’ Dutch, Peggy Noonan’s When Character Was King Haynes Johnson’s Sleepwalking Through History, Will Bunch’s Tear Down This Myth and Robert Dallek’s The Politics of Symbolism, I must say that Ambinder’s assessment of Reagan is pretty fair and apt, if not just in its focus on the President’s sincere desire to ease Cold War tensions and to prove to the Soviet adversaries that their total erasure from Earth was not in his playbook. To illustrate this, Ambinder includes an excerpt from Reagan’s diary:
Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians: Many people at the top of the Soviet hierarchy were genuinely afraid of America and Americans…Well, if that was the case, I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try and convince him we had no designs on the Soviets and the Russians had nothing to fear from us.
In a late chapter called “A New Hope: But Still, Star Wars?” Ambinder recounts what happened in and around Reagan’s meeting with Soviet foreign-minister Andrei Gromyko in 1984. Secretary of State George Schultz (who’d replaced Haig) liked the idea of direct talking, while Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger rejected Reagan’s eagerness as a sign of weakness to the enemy. “The details of what he would say mattered, but they mattered less than getting a meeting,” narrates Ambinder, again reminding me of the symbolic maneuvers of Trump’s historic but highly questioned quasi-summit with North Korea’s notorious Supreme Leader. “The president’s confidence in his ability to persuade, Schultz believed, could create its own momentum. The table of options for arms control would expand by sheer force of will.” The parallels continue in the following lines: “Gromyko and Reagan sat together on a couch…After it ended, both men know they had not agreed to anything…The substance was less important than the impression the meeting gave.”
Going farther back in history, Ambinder posits that Trump took cues from Nixonian foreign policy for his ambivalent approach to North Korea:
By design, the system jams a president into making a decision before he can really know what he needs to know…All of this is why pugnacious, contrived uncertainty is an expedient to war and why humility – a character trait that Ronald Reagan often used to the world’s advantage – is its mortal enemy.
How can we forget that the President shifted from fiery and furious language for “Little Rocket Man” to ear-to-ear grins, handshakes and saccharine compliments within a relatively short period? (Fire to furry.) Now, generally speaking. I tend to emphasize our usual ignorance of potential doom also entails public declarations and promises. Often, we overestimate the risk of, say, a “fire and fury” tweet – but perhaps don’t suspect anything dangerous behind a melodious “peace in our time,” due to either up-top duplicity or from-within complacency. But also often, handshakes come from genuine hopes of averting Apocalypse, or at least kicking the can down the road to deal with it later.
Ambinder rightly credits cooler heads for preventing the domino effect of Able Archer from becoming disastrous. “Brittle brinksmanship” can go a long way in staving off disorder or a scorched planet. And perhaps positively spotlighting the finer points of some global actors might microcosmically ease the dread of a Kubrickian anti-flight person like myself. Maybe air-traffic controllers do have reliable control for the most part; maybe pilots are safer than Uber drivers. But, then again, the pilots of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 were probably cool-headed and capable as hell – and we know how that trip ended up. Again, existence is capricious.
Think about the following ominous excerpt from The Brink next time you’re toilet-Facebooking in all your contented, ignorant glory:
History largely syncopates and occasionally echoes. It does not repeat itself. But enough hasn’t changed between 1983 and now to rule out a reality that we may face a day, soon, when our president might have to make a rapid decision about whether to authorize the launch of nuclear weapons…Today, President Trump can execute an emergency war order in less time than it takes to get a cheeseburger at a drive-through.