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The War Scare That Wasn’t: Able Archer and the Myths of the Second Cold War

Speaker: Simon Miles
Location: Larkin 200

Most accounts of the Cold War focus on the autumn of 1983 as one of its most dangerous periods. Beginning with the Soviet downing of KAL 007 and the US invasion of Grenada, this narrative climaxes with NATO’s Able Archer exercise, which the Kremlin allegedly perceived as cover for a surprise attack. This paper pushes back on this characterization, going beyond the rhetoric of the 1980s to better illustrate the history of the late Cold War.

Using newly declassified archival sources from across the globe, this paper examines the Able Archer exercise and US-Soviet relations during the so-called “Second Cold War.” It makes extensive use of Czechoslovak, East German, and Ukrainian intelligence archives, as well as British, Soviet, and US documents, to tell an international story about crisis and stability in the late Cold War.

I challenge the orthodoxy that Able Archer was a war scare, examining the ongoing Soviet-led intelligence operation underway during the 1980s to predict a Western surprise attack, Operation RYaN, which was in fact a research and development initiative to use computers in intelligence analysis. I show that, through back channel discussions, US and Soviet policy-makers managed the risks of nuclear conflict.

Bio: Simon Miles is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Texas at Austin and a Fellow at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History.

This event is part of the Bill Graham Centre's Graduate Student Forum.