A New Role for Reagan
When President Ronald Wilson Reagan and his team took up office in January 1981, they were brimming over with confidence and optimism. Reagan had campaigned on a pledge that he would reinvigorate America with new strength and the will to lead the free world in its struggle against communism. A modestly successful Hollywood actor and a leading figure in the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan had been the governor of California. He was inaugurated president within a few days of his seventieth birthday - the oldest US president ever. Never wanting to be tied down with detail, he required that papers prepared for him be double-spaced and no more than a page and a half long. For Reagan the presidency was intuitive and inspirational, a "role" he would play. He would offer a broad strategy; it was for others to follow through on policy details and implementation.
Reagan was further to the right than many Americans on both domestic and foreign policy issues, but he was a genial, gutsy communicator, with a way of phrasing ideas that made them appealing. Prosperity would come from "getting the government off our backs." At his first press conference he announced that "detente is a one-way street the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims." Since dealing with accusations of Communist infiltration of Hollywood in the late 1940s, he had been a fervent and outspoken anti-Communist. Now he attacked the morality of the Soviets; they believed they could do anything to "further their cause, meaning they have the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat in order to attain that lend]." Reagan's world was like an old Hollywood movie; he saw things in simple terms of right and wrong, with the Communists as the bad guys and the West leading a "crusade for freedom" that would dump the whole Communist system on the "ash heap of history." Two years into his presidency he described the Soviet leaders as "the focus of evil in the modern world" and their domain as "an evil empire." Jimmy Carter, his predecessor, had begun the process of rejecting detente and increasing defence spending. Reagan wholeheartedly embraced this way forward in foreign policy.
Many of Reagan's ideas came from a right-wing think tank, the Committee on the Present Danger, which was strongly anti-Communist, opposed to the SALT II agreement, and in favour of increased military expenditure. Fifty members of the committee took senior positions in the new administration. This nucleus within government believed that negotiating with the Soviets was a sign of weakness; what was needed was a determination to contain Soviet expansion by building up American economic and military strength.
Immediately Reagan began a new phase of rearmament, on a colossal scale. Within two weeks of taking office, he increased the defence budget by $32.6 billion. The new secretary of defence, Caspar Weinberger, announced that his mission was "to rearm America." Defence spending increased by nearly 50 per cent during the first Reagan term, rising to 7 per cent of gross domestic product. The Pentagon got almost everything it wanted, including the B-1 bomber, which Carter had scrapped, an enlarged navy, and reinforcements of conventional weaponry. New defence guidance directives called, alarmingly, for preparations to wage a nuclear war "over a protracted period." They advocated "nuclear decapitation" of the Soviet political and military leadership in the event of war and stressed that the United States must "prevail" in any nuclear conflict. They also identified the need for using "special forces" in covert counter-insurgency operations. All these hawkish plans were funded by immense budget deficits and by cutting back on domestic welfare programmes. Through the decade the national debt would soar from $1 trillion to $4 trillion.
Reagan reasoned that the United States could afford the cost of a new escalation in the arms race but the Soviet Union could not. A few months before his election he had told the Washington Post: "Right now we are hearing of strikes and labor disputes because people aren't getting enough to eat. They've diverted so much to military spending that they can't provide for consumer needs." He was convinced that the way to defeat the Soviets was to outspend and outperform them. He concluded: "So far as an arms race is concerned, there's one going on right now, but there's only one side racing."
In Reagan's view the Soviet Union was the source of "all the unrest that is going on" in the world; national liberation struggles were nothing less than instruments for Soviet expansion. Both Reagan and his first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, believed that the Soviets were behind most acts of international terrorism. So local problems anywhere became issues that threatened the stability of the entire free world and needed an appropriate response. Haig claimed that Moscow had a "hit list" for the "takeover of Central America," with El Salvador and Nicaragua at the top.
"Our Son of a Bitch"
The Somoza family had ruled Nicaragua, the largest nation in Central America, since the 1930s. By exploiting the country mercilessly, they accumulated a vast fortune, becoming the richest family in the whole area. For several decades the Somozas were known as staunch allies of the United States, even though American leaders were aware that they were despotic and greedy. As Franklin Roosevelt is supposed to have said of the founder of the dynasty, "I know he's a son of a bitch but he's our son of a bitch." With US military backing, the Somozas overpowered all opposition and ruled through a tough national guard. During the Cold War, American strategic interest in Nicaragua was to maintain stability; so when hostility to dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle grew in the mid-1970s, President Ford doubled military aid to him. But Somoza's record of human rights violations was abysmal, and President Carter, trying to distance his administration from this repressive regime, reduced American aid to Nicaragua.
During 1977 opponents of Somoza came together in a broad alliance, of which the Sandinistas, who began as Cuban-supported guerrillas, represented the rural poor. The more moderate opposition, from the business classes, was led by Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. On 10 January 1978 Chamorro was assassinated - a spark that set Nicaragua on fire. There followed weeks of rioting and calls for a general strike. The opposition to Somoza now comprised businessmen, journalists, students, and intellectuals as well as poor peasants. They all hoped Washington would put pressure on Somoza to compromise. Carter had said he would not intervene in Latin America, but as the disturbances worsened, he decided to try to prop up the moderates to avoid power going to the radicals, the Sandinistas. It was too little too late. Nicaragua was polarizing rapidly; the fighting soon escalated into civil war. In mid-1979, the Sandinistas finally took control of the capital, Managua. A bloody civil war had cost nearly fifty thousand lives. The dictator Somoza, America's long-time ally, fled the country and was later murdered in Paraguay.
Modelling itself on the Cuban revolution, the new left-wing government led by Daniel Ortega Saavedra began a policy of land reform and the nationalization of key industries, as well as a literacy campaign to raise educational standards. Thousands of Cubans arrived to assist in the revolution - doctors, teachers, agricultural experts, and military advisers. But the old business classes soon fell out with the Sandinistas, and in 1981 another civil war began when the paramilitary contrarevolutionarios (known as the Contras) launched brutal attacks from neighbouring Honduras. The Contras looked for outside support and naturally turned to Reagan's White House.
In November 1981 the National Security Council authorized substantial
funds to assist the Contras. The
In El Salvador a guerrilla war had been waged by leftist fighters against a right-wing military regime for many years. The guerrillas were supported by Cuba with small arms supplied through Nicaragua. Reagan increased aid to El Salvador's military junta from $36 million in 1981 to $197 million in 1984. The junta viciously pursued the opposition, sending "death squads" through the countryside looking for peasants who had given support to the guerrillas. Tens of thousands of people were killed or simply went missing: the "disappeared." Almost one in five of the population fled abroad for refuge. The conflict ended in stalemate, with neither side able to defeat the other. But Washington preferred the right-wing military junta to a left-wing revolutionary government, and to this extent was satisfied that El Salvador remained free from communism.
The Israeli Invasion of Lebanon
In 1975 the fragile balance of cultural and religious diversity in Lebanon fractured into civil war between Christian and Muslim forces. The civil war was aggravated by a large Palestinian refugee population, forced out of Israel, whose government-in-exile, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), operated almost as a state within a state. The Palestinians controlled southern Lebanon and used their bases there to launch rocket attacks into northern Israel, to which the Israelis usually responded with heavy counter-attacks. A United Nations peacekeeping force was sent to southern Lebanon to try to keep the two combatants apart, since the Reagan administration was reluctant to become involved in the IsraeliPalestinian-conflict.
In June 1982, on the pretext of retaliating for a terrorist attack in London, the Israelis launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. With overwhelming firepower, the Israelis stormed the PLO guerrilla bases in southern Lebanon and within days sped past UN peacekeepers, who could do nothing more than note registration numbers of the invaders' tanks.
In the early days of the invasion, the Israelis, using US weaponry, came into conflict with the Sovietarmed Syrian air force in a classic Cold War "proxy" confrontation. Using US missile technology to fight Soviet air technology, the Israelis shot the Syrians out of the sky. Within hours hundreds of Soviet advisers had arrived in Damascus to assess whether the defeat was due to the superiority of American weaponry or the failure of Syrians to use Soviet technology effectively.. Moscow rapidly rearmed the Syrians but at the same time warned the United States on the hot line against direct intervention.
American exasperation with Israel grew as itscommanders occupied West Beirut and, after a month of stalemate, stood by while Christian militiamen massacred hundreds of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, supposedly under Israeli control. This prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity. Both' Israel and the PLO agreed to withdraw from Beirut. US marines, along with French, Italian, and British troops, were sent to West Beirut to keep the peace.
The Soviets believed the United States wanted to turn Lebanon into a protectorate, but this was never Washington's intention. Sucked into the Lebanese civil war to prop up a pro-Western leader, Amin Gemayel, the Americans became unpopular with all sides. In October 1983 an Islamic terrorist drove a truck packed with explosives into an American military barracks and detonated his cargo, killing 241 marines. As a consequence, within four months, the Reagan administration had withdrawn American troops from Lebanon.
Israeli armoured vehicles invade Lebanon, June 1982. UN observers can only watch them go by.
In Afghanistan the Reagan administration inherited a
programme of covert assistance for the Mujahedeen, which it substantially
increased by supplying arms to the rebels fighting the Red Army there. Most
arms were channelled through the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, where the
rebels recruited their fighters. The Pakistanis hoped to encourage the creation
of a fundamentalist Islamic state in Afghanistan. Before long Reagan and his
people were describing the Mujahedeen, the Islamic "soldiers of God,"
as "freedom fighters" in the US struggle with the forces of evil, and
Pakistan as a "front line" state in the war. President Carter's
national security adviser, Brzezinski, had offered Pakistan $400 million of US
aid, which President Zia rejected as "peanuts." He wanted tanks and
high performance aircraft like the F-16 that he could use against Pakistan's
traditional enemy, India. Realizing that at the Reagan White House he was
pushing on an open door, Zia talked up his demands for aid. He eventually
agreed to a five-year $1.5 billion military aid package from the United States
that included forty F-16 jets, along with $1.7 billion of economic aid. In
return the United States got permission to replace the radar listening posts it
had lost in Iran with new monitoring stations in northern Pakistan, near the
Soviet border. However, despite the
In addition the new
The fighting in Afghanistan grew more intense through 1981 and 1982. After heavy casualties in the early phase of the war, the Red Army moved away from massive armoured sweeps to smaller-scale land operations backed with air support. Soviet planes would bomb a village or a valley thought to be infiltrated by rebels, and Soviet commandos would come in by helicopter to block Mujahedeen escape routes. There were some large set-piece battles, but the results were inconclusive; and once the Soviets had withdrawn, the Mujahedeen would gradually return. The Soviets continued to sustain high losses; by the end of 1982 nearly five thousand Russian soldiers and airmen had died in Afghanistan.
Soviet leader Yuri Andropov said he was prepared to offer a timetable for withdrawal, if the United States and Pakistan agreed to stop supplying the Muj ahedeen with arms and if a regime broadly along the lines of the existing one in Kabul remained in place. Peace efforts began under UN envoy Javier Perez de Cuellar (who shortly became UN secretary-general). Afghanistan and Pakistan were brought into the mediation process through "proximity talks"; the different sides did not meet face to face but through a UN intermediary. These talks began in Geneva in June 1982. From the archives in Moscow, we now know that the Soviets were trying to disengage honourably, leaving behind a friendly regime in Kabul. However, the talks were premature. Pakistan did not want peace; like the United States it preferred to see the Soviets tied down in Afghanistan. The United States never had any real expectation that Moscow would withdraw. It concentrated instead on supplying arms to the Mujahedeen and in letting the Soviet Union "bleed." Talks dragged on for year after year, but got nowhere.
A New Generation of Leaders
In the early 1980s, as conflicts continued, Cold War fears intensified. In Europe the peace movement, galvanized by opposition to cruise and Pershing missiles, mobilized ever larger numbers; across the continent 300,000 protesters marched during one weekend. But peace movement motives varied enormously, ranging from radical feminism at Greenham Common in England to Green Party politics in Germany. In Britain many people opposed the deployment of cruise missiles while still welcoming the NATO nuclear umbrella. In Germany some protested against the existence of nuclear weapons, others the use of nuclear energy for power. Statements from Moscow of Soviet support played into the hands of critics of the peace movement; they claimed that the KGB was behind every demonstration for peace.
Despite this groundswell of popular hostility to Cold War ramifications, a new generation of leaders in Europe brought increased vigour to the Atlantic alliance. In Margaret Thatcher, already British prime minister for a year and a half when the new administration took over in Washington, Reagan found a soulmate. Dubbed the Iron Lady by the Russians, Thatcher was resolute in her determination to deregulate government and allow the benefits of capitalism to flourish. Although the UK was now committed to Europe, Thatcher was also a strong believer, she said, in Britain's "enduring alliance" with the United States. Reagan and Thatcher saw eye to eye on many key issues. In Francois Mitterrand, France elected a president who wanted to return his country's nuclear capability to the Atlantic fold; discussions about bringing French troops back under NATO military control began. In West Germany, Helmut Kohl, who became chancellor in 1982, feared the Soviet threat and had a mandate to proceed with the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles.
In the Soviet Union the early 1980s marked a period of stagnation. Leonid Brezhnev, in his mid-seventies, had been too ill even to lead the ageing band of Kremlin bosses effectively. Soviet policy became almost entirely reactive and devoid of initiative. At the Twenty-sixth Party Congress in February 1981, a month after Reagan took office, Brezhnev announced that the USSR wanted "normal relations with the United States" and said, "We are ready for dialogue." But as relations worsened over the next year, Politburo members claimed the buildup of arms by NATO was "exceeding all reasonable limits" and was "intensifying the danger of war." But it was beyond Moscow's ability to reverse this. It had no alternative policy but to reiterate a belief in detente and strategic arms control. These, as far as Washington was concerned, were now dead and buried. Reagan was accusing Moscow of lying, cheating, and using any means to achieve the objective of "world revolution"; the Kremlin merely noted that the new team in Washington lacked "political tact and courtesy." Moscow was not looking for any further commitments. Afghanistan was proving a major drain, and economic aid for Cuba and Vietnam was costing the USSR dearly. The Soviet economy was now falling seriously behind the West. It could not keep up with the demands of new technologies, and it was incapable of supplying the consumer needs of its people, outside of the tiny nomenklatura, the bureaucratic elite.
Brezhnev's death in November 1982 ended the era of his eighteen-year rule. The succession passed smoothly to Yuri Andropov, formerly head of the KGB and Moscow's man in Budapest in 1956. Everyone expected a hard-line approach, but instead Andropov's first months brought a peace offensive. He talked of the 1970s, the decade "characterized by detente," not as a "chance episode in the difficult history of mankind," but as the key to the future. Andropov called for arms reductions, offered to cut back SS-20s in Europe, and proposed a new East-West summit. He went on to suggest nuclear-free zones in parts of Europe and the Mediterranean and a ban on arms sales to the developing world. At a Warsaw Pact meeting in January 1983, Andropov proposed a non-aggression undertaking in which NATO and the Warsaw Pact would agree not to use force against each other, or against members of their own bloc. His adviser Georgi Arbatov described this as "a crucial breakthrough ... a break with the Hungarian syndrome that had so plagued him. Of course, it was also a break with the 'Brezhnev Doctrine."'
A New Initiative: Star Wars
In Washington, Reagan was of no mind to compromise. Within days of Andropov's offering his olive branch, Reagan made his famous speech calling the Soviet leaders "the focus of evil in the modern world." Two weeks later, on 23 March 1983, in a speech calling for support of the defence budget, Reagan rejected the whole concept of mutual deterrence that had prevented nuclear war for more than three decades. Instead he argued for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an ambitious project to construct an anti-missile system in space, a programme instantly dubbed "Star Wars." Without any analysis of the technological problems or the costs involved, Reagan put forward a vision of a defensive shield that would intercept and destroy any incoming hostile projectiles through laser beams in space. Such a defensive shield, had it ever become a practical prospect, would have been as unsettling to the nuclear balance as anti-ballistic missiles were in the 1960s and early 1970s. If successful as designed, SDI could have nullified the Soviet nuclear threat. But had it gone ahead, most likely the Soviets would simply have increased the number of their ICBMs, with the idea that if enough were launched some of them would certainly get through. However, in Reagan's crusade against the forces of darkness, Star Wars was a powerful new weapon in the rhetorical arsenal.
Andropov responded to the Strategic Defense Initiative with
a clear message of defiance. He claimed: "All attempts at achieving
military superiority over the USSR are futile. The Soviet Union will never let
that happen. It will never be caught defenceless by any threat, let there be no
mistake about this in Washington. It is time they stopped devising one option
after another in the search for the best ways of unleashing nuclear war in the
hope of winning it. Engaging in this is not just irresponsible. It is
insane." Andropov repeatedly described Washington's rhetoric against the
Communist world as "flippant" and "irresponsible" and
blamed the United States for failing to commit to the new Strategic Arms
Reduction Talks (START), a follow-up to SALT, and to the Intermediate-Range
Nuclear Forces (
America's European allies were also alarmed. A protective shield over America would leave Europe as the principal vulnerable target. Even Reagan's staunchest supporter, Margaret Thatcher, was troubled by SDI and tried to persuade Reagan to modify the plan to include the NATO allies. When Thatcher visited the White House to discuss SDI, Reagan spoke later of the "handbagging" he received.
"A Forward Strategy for Freedom"
Reagan's aggressive pronouncements against communism became known as the Reagan Doctrine. In 1983, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, he once again described "the struggle now going on in the world" as "essentially the struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, between what is right and what is wrong." He went on to say, "We must go on the offensive with a forward strategy for freedom." The United States, he argued, must support forces fighting for freedom everywhere, "in all continents." Reagan even spoke of supporting "the forces of freedom in Communist totalitarian states," implying that the United States would actively encourage insurgents in Eastern Europe or even inside the Soviet Union itself. Reagan provided substantial covert support for Solidarity in Poland, in alliance with the Catholic Church. But apart from this, Washington did no more than alarm Moscow by thes threat. US policy, however, did include an increased level of covert support for "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, and later, to a more limited degree, in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Cambodia. The whole aim was an attempt to roll back communism - not just to contain the Soviet Union but to try for outright victory in the Cold War.
Ronald Reagan, in spite of his macho posture, was actually terrified by the prospect of a nuclear war that could be triggered in only minutes and seconds of response time. He had nightmares about mutual assured destruction and the possible need one day to press the nuclear button. But his Strategic Defense initiative both destabilized the balance that had endured for thirty-five years and threatened an anxious Soviet Union.
The so-called Star Wars programme was intended to exploit the huge gap that already existed between American and Russian technology. An electronic shield would be constructed across the United States, and laser beams in space would intercept hostile
missiles. Reagan's vision had a parallel in a popular 1977 space fantasy movie in which the force for Good pits deadly rays against an Evil Empire; its vocabulary was entirely apt for use by Reagan against the Communist bloc.
But such a system flouted the basic terms of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which had stabilized the nuclear balance by ensuring that both sides would guarantee their own destruction if either launched a nuclear attack on the other. If Star Wars worked, the thinking went, the United States might be more likely to launch a first nuclear strike, knowing it would be inviolable to retaliation. Reagan got around that threat by offering to share the technology with the Soviets. Soviet scientists believed that if only they built enough missiles no defensive system could stop them all. They imagined that by spinning the missiles on launch they could deflect the laser beams. And, with all the talk in Washington of the Soviet Union as the "evil empire," they were suspicious of Reagan's intentions ever to share the technology with them. It all seemed a trick intended to dupe them. Star Wars, it appeared, would make a new arms race inevitable - this time in space.
Any conflict, anywhere in the world, was liable to be overlaid with this simplistic vision of an ideological crusade against communism. This created strange bedfellows for the United States. The Contras in Nicaragua were trained by, among others, a terrorist bomber, Luis Posada Carriles. Carriles had blown up a Venezuelan airliner in 1976, with heavy loss of life, and was never turned over to the Venezuelan authorities; instead he went on the US payroll. Yet Reagan described the Contras as "the moral equal of our Founding Fathers." In Cambodia the United States, lining up with the non-Communist forces, found itself allied with the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Right-wing military juntas, despite their despicable treatment of opponents, received US support. President Zia of Pakistan made it clear that, even with US aid, he still wanted to develop his own nuclear weapons. Before the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in 1982, the United States supported the Argentine generals, with their cruel record on human rights, because of their anti-Communist stance, as well as the support they gave the Contras. In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, covert US aid helped arm the death squads that terrorized the countryside. America's share in the international arms trade increased during the Reagan years. All this came as a consequence of Reagan's "noble cause" of fighting communism.
The extent to which the administration was prepared to go in
advancing this cause was seen in Nicaragua, where congressional support for
backing the Contras waxed and waned. In 1984, after a
A rare example of direct US military intervention came in October 1983, when the United States invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada after that country's prime minister was murdered in a military coup. Reagan feared the island would become a Communist base in the region and, on the pretext of rescuing American medical students there, acted decisively. A 7,000-strong US invasion force overcame the 600-man Grenadan army in a matter of hours. The evidence for Cuban-Soviet infiltration of Grenada was minimal; there were about forty-three Cuban military advisers on the island. The airport runway being built by a British company was for tourism, not for long-range Soviet supply aircraft as Washington claimed. The invasion was welcomed by some on the island, but widely criticized internationally; condemned in the Security Council, the United States had to deflect censure with a rare use of its veto. And since Grenada was a Commonwealth country, the invasion prompted a rebuke of Reagan from Margaret Thatcher. But at home in the United States the invasion was popular. Most Americans accepted the president's line: Grenada was "a Soviet-Cuban colony, being readied as a major military bastion to export terror and undermine democracy. We got there just in time."
We now know that the Soviets were so alarmed at this time that they put the KGB onto a special alert. Andrei Gromyko, Soviet foreign minister, warned: "The world situation is now slipping towards a very dangerous precipice. Problem number one for the world is to avoid nuclear war." Moscow began to believe that a US attack upon its allies, perhaps Cuba, or even against itself, was a possibility. KGB officers were instructed to observe closely whatever was going on in the West; any unusual activity - the movement of money, the setting up of blood banks, the sudden return of servicemen to active duty - was to be reported to Moscow. This intelligence operation lasted for some years; it reflected the Kremlin's growing paranoia.
An Airliner Well Off Course
In late August 1983 came the most traumatic event of this period to affect USSoviet relations: the shooting down of a Korean Air Lines jumbo jet, flight 007 from New York via Anchorage to Seoul, with 269 persons on board. When it was shot down by a Russian Su-15 fighter, the Korean airliner had strayed 365 miles off course and was inside Soviet airspace, well into a security zone of particular sensitivity. At the time of the incident another aircraft was also in the area, a US surveillance plane packed with electronic listening and monitoring devices. It has never been established whether the tragedy was connected to some American-sponsored intelligence mission that went terribly wrong, or whether it was just the incompetence of Soviet defence system personnel in firing on a civilian plane gone astray.
The response in Washington, however, to the loss of innocent life was instant outrage. Secretary of State George Shultz said he could see "no explanation whatever for shooting down an unarmed commercial airliner, no matter whether it's in your airspace or not." Reagan expressed "revulsion at this horrifying act of violence." He called it a "terrorist act," "a crime against humanity," and "an act of barbarism." At the United Nations the US representative described the shooting down of the civilian airliner as "wanton, calculated, deliberate murder." These furious condemnations were met with silence and evasions. For six days, as a full investigation was carried out, Moscow even refused to admit that the aircraft had been shot down. It now seems that although the Soviet military wanted to admit its error, the Kremlin refused to do so to avoid losing face. But the delays and denials made the Soviets look guilty to the rest of the world.
In Washington tapes were produced of the conversation between the Soviet pilot and his ground control station. The pilot, ordered to carry out the attack, fired his missiles and reported back to base: "The target is destroyed." However, we now know that the tape extracts produced by US intelligence were edited very selectively. The rest of the tape reveals that the Soviet fighter pilot followed all the international protocols for warning a civilian airliner that it was off course. Having gone through all these manoeuvres, the Soviet pilot, as a final warning, then fired tracers across the bow of the airliner. When, astonishingly, this still failed to get a response, Soviet military ground control concluded that the Korean jumbo jet must be a US military reconnaissance plane on a spying mission and ordered the shoot-down. However, this part of the tape was not revealed by Washington. Moscow was so slow to get its story together that it never managed to reverse the successful US propaganda campaign.
The Shoot-down of KAL 007
Mysteries still surround the shooting down of Korean Air Lines flight 007 during the night of 31 August 1983. KAL 007 was on a regular flight from New York to Seoul. It stopped to refuel at Anchorage where, unusually, it took on more fuel than it needed before continuing its journey. From there, Captain Chun Byung-in, a veteran of the Korean War and one of the airline's most experienced pilots, flew the aircraft on a route that from the start began to drift off course, as if the highly sophisticated Inertial Navigation System was either switched off or had been wrongly programmed. Before long KAL 007 was hundreds of miles from its intended flight path. However, when Captain Chun reported his position to several ground control relay stations, he did so as if he were in fact flying along his designated route. For several navigation computers not to have caught this error adds up to an extraordinary malfunction in itself. The odds that all the different radar navigation systems could separately have failed to spot KAL 007's incorrect route have been calculated by one writer as "literally billions of trillions to one against."
While these double-check systems were, apparently, failing, KAL 007 was straying, perhaps deliberately, into some of the most dangerous skies in the world. At this tense moment in the Cold War, the Soviet Pacific Fleet had grown into the largest of the USSR's four fleets; it included several 25,000-ton Typhoon-class submarines, each of which carried eighty nuclear warheads, along with the newest Delta submarines. There were 2,400 Soviet combat aircraft in the region, and nearly half a million men, mostly along the Chinese border. Against this, the US Seventh Fleet patrolled the western Pacific with four giant aircraft carriers. It was backed by air and naval bases along the Aleutians, in Japan, in South Korea, and on several Pacific islands. From these flew the latest F-16 fighter-bombers, unmatched in the Soviet air force. Large-scale naval exercises had been held in the region earlier in 1983. Admiral Robert Long, commander-inchief of the US Pacific forces, was convinced that the Pacific was where "a confrontation with the Soviet Union is most likely to take place."
Both sides employed a variety of surveillance platforms to observe the other: ground listening stations, reconnaissance ships and planes, and spy satellites. The United States had an overwhelming technological superiority in its electronic monitoring equipment. Occasionally it would mount surveillance missions in which an intruder aircraft flew into Soviet airspace while an RC-135 aircraft, packed with tons of listening equipment, recorded data about how the Soviet command structure responded, and how its radar and electronic facilities operated. The purpose was to find out if there were any gaps in the Soviet defensive system. The Soviets had protested about one of these intrusions only a few months before. On the night of 31 August, over the Kamchatka Peninsula, KAL flight 007 appears to have passed near such a US RC-135 surveillance aircraft, there to monitor tests of a new Soviet PL-5 missile due to be fired that very night. Perhaps the Soviet radar controllers got the two aircraft muddled and, as the civilian airliner crossed Soviet airspace again, over Sakhalin Island, scrambled their defences.
But there are still unanswered questions about what happened. Was the flight off course due to some extraordinary coincidence of navigational accidents? Had the Soviets jammed its navigation system for some reason? Was Captain Chun deliberately trying to take a short cut to reduce fuel costs? If so, why was he not extra vigilant as he knowingly crossed Soviet airspace? Why, above all else, did KAL flight 007 not respond to international warning signals from the Soviet fighter, the waggling of wings and then the firing of tracers across its bow? The Soviet pilot has said that he had identified the plane as a Boeing747 civilian jet, so why, then, was the order given to shoot it down?
The Soviets alleged that KAL 007 was on a spy mission to provoke the Soviet defences in a way that could then be observed by US electronic surveillance systems. This has never been proved. Nine years after the incident, a Russian investigation concluded that the shoot-down was a genuine accident by panicky and incompetent Soviet Air Defence Command operators.
In any case, at a particularly tense moment in the Cold War, the tragic loss of KAL flight 007 made each side even more suspicious of the other. Reagan exploited the anti-Soviet sentiment generated in the United States to win support for his increased military spending.
Following the KAL 007 incident, Washington banned all Aeroflot flights into the United States - even preventing Foreign Minister Gromyko from landing in New York to attend the UN General Assembly. Both sides believed the worst about the other, and US-Soviet relations reached a new low. Andropov, unwell and confined to a kidney-dialysis machine at a clinic outside Moscow, saw all his hopes for peaceful co-existence shattered. Four weeks after the Korean airliner shoot-down, he finally decided to go on the attack and accused US policy of taking a "militarist course that represents a serious threat to peace." Sticking to the position that flight 007 had been used by the United States for a deliberate surveillance provocation to test Soviet responses, he apologized for the loss of life but accused Washington of "extreme adventurism" in this "criminal act." The Soviet press denounced America heavily. Ordinary Russians began to fear the worst. One local party chief, in a remote agricultural region, was approached after a meeting by several women in tears, asking if war with America was now inevitable, and if their sons would have to die.
Relations Blow Hot and Cold
A few weeks later, as the United States deployed Pershing
and cruise missiles in Western Europe, the Soviets walked out of the stalled
The situation had got so bad late in 1983 that a large-scale NATO exercise in Western Europe led the Kremlin to believe that an American first-strike offensive was imminent. Both the killing of US marines in Beirut and the invasion of Grenada in late October had prompted US military alerts that had been closely monitored in Moscow. Then, in early November, came a ten-day NATO exercise code-named Operation Able Archer 83 that was designed to practise high-level command co-ordination during a nuclear attack. As the NATO forces went through the various stages of alert from conventional to nuclear, Moscow became more and more nervous. Soviet defence thinkers had often imagined that a real attack, when it came, might be launched during what purported to be military exercises. Again, the KGB was put on special alert. At air bases in East Germany interceptor aircraft were placed on standby. This panic in Moscow was the Kremlin's blackest time since the Cuban missile crisis. Many in the Soviet leadership were genuinely afraid of the US Pershings, which, newly deployed in Europe, could reach the Kremlin in only a few minutes.
The deputy KGB chief in London, Oleg Gordievsky, was a double agent who also worked for British intelligence. When Gordievsky passed on news of the KGB alert and the fact that the Kremlin seriously feared an American firststrike offensive, initially no one believed him. However, the information was passed from London to Washington. When the new national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, told Reagan, the news had a strong impact on the president. Reagan was puzzled, but also seriously disturbed, to learn that the Kremlin could really believe that he would launch an offensive assault against the Soviet Union. He felt a real need for a face-to-face meeting with the Soviet leaders. This feeling influenced his thinking over the months ahead.
In early 1984 the White House decided to take a more conciliatory tone.
In a major policy speech to kick off his campaign for re-election, Reagan announced that he was ready to "meet the Soviets halfway." He still spoke about building "credible deterrence" but also of the need to "avoid war and reduce the level of arms." He even talked of engaging in "constructive cooperation" and in a new "dialogue" with the Soviets. A few days later, Secretary Shultz met Gromyko in Stockholm. Instead of the usual recriminations, they enjoyed five hours of reportedly "serious" discussions together. And in Washington, the backdoor negotiating channel with veteran Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin was opened up again.
Throughout 1984 Reagan and Shultz blew hot and cold towards Moscow. Reagan, convinced that America had grown strong again, felt secure enough to begin talking with the Soviets. On the other hand, in his election campaign he kept up some of the old anti-Soviet rhetoric. The Kremlin was still cautious about the new line coming out of Washington and was not sure what to make of it. In May the Soviets called a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, citing fear for their teams' safety. Groups from the American right wing had formed a Ban the Soviets coalition that threatened acts of violence against Russian athletes; they also announced their intention to induce defections with the use of "safe houses," supposedly all prepared and waiting. The Soviets imagined that their boycott would make Reagan less popular in America. However, the president opened an Olympic Games in which the United States indulged in an orgy of national pride and flag-waving. Without the stiff competition from the Eastern bloc, the United States won more gold medals than in any previous Games. Later in the year Moscow suggested it would consider restarting arms-limitation negotiations. The Kremlin wanted to prevent the militarization of outer space and called for a ban on "space weapons." Washington, still committed to the Star Wars initiative, SDI, agreed to a meeting in Vienna. And Reagan met Gromyko after he had addressed the United Nations. This, the first encounter between Reagan and any senior Soviet official, was treated in the United States like a mini-summit. A slight thaw began to affect the frosty relations between Moscow and Washington.
On 9 February 1984 Andropov died; he was replaced as general secretary by Konstantin Chernenko, another elderly Soviet leader who had been close to Brezhnev. Chernenko's appointment disguised changes that were gathering pace inside the Soviet Union. In his short rule Andropov had started the process of reform, initiating a campaign against corruption in the bureaucracy and trying to find ways to improve the dreadful inefficiency of Soviet industry. This included an attempt to reduce the chronic alcoholism that afflicted the country like a plague. He tried to decentralize economic decision making and to delegate planning decisions to local managers. Andropov also promoted a younger generation of party reformers, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze. They wanted to pull the Soviet Union out of its stagnant mire. Through Chernenko, the old guard would cling to power for a little longer. But Chernenko was old and frail. In the wings, the new generation gathered.
In London, Margaret Thatcher's advisers looked at these new, younger members of the Soviet Politburo. They wondered with whom they would be dealing next and issued a series of invitations to visit Britain. By chance, the first to accept was Mikhail Gorbachev, who at the end of the year visited Thatcher in London. He came with his wife, Raisa, itself remarkable, as Soviet leaders rarely travelled with their wives. By comparison to the old men who had led the Soviet Union for twenty years, the Gorbachevs were young, lively, and glamorous. The visit was a great success. After Thatcher and Gorbachev met, the British prime minister was asked by reporters what she thought of her guest. "I'm cautiously optimistic," she replied. "I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together." Mrs. Thatcher's verdict ushered in the final stage of the Cold War.