Military history

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WAR SCARE

When Korean Air Lines flight 007 left Anchorage at 4 A.M. local time on August 31, the crew was well familiar with the planned route across the Pacific, which came close to the airspace of the Soviet Union before crossing Japan and heading to Seoul. The pilot of the Boeing 747 was Captain Chun Byung-in, forty-five years old, a veteran of the Korean Air Force who had logged 6,619 hours flying jumbo jets, including eighty-three flights across the northern Pacific in the previous decade. His copilot, Son Dong-Hwin, forty-seven, had made the crossing fifty-two times. And the navigator, Kim Eui Dong, thirty-two, had made forty-four flights across the ocean. In addition to the flight crew, there were twenty cabin attendants, six Korean Air Lines employees transferring back to Seoul, and two hundred forty passengers, among them sixty-two Americans, including Representative Larry McDonald, an extreme right-wing Democrat from Georgia who was chairman of the John Birch Society.1

The flight plan was to take R20, the northernmost of five passenger airline routes across the ocean. These highways in the sky were fifty nautical miles wide and one thousand feet high. Route R20 was nearest the Soviet Union. The flight’s departure from Anchorage was delayed to account for headwinds, and to bring the plane into Seoul’s Kimpo International Airport at precisely 6 A.M. on September 1.

Soon after takeoff, an error was made. The autopilot was improperly set and the crew did not notice. Instead of picking up the Inertial Navigation System, which would have steered the plane on the proper route, the autopilot was instead set at a constant magnetic heading. This may have been caused by the failure to twist a knob one further position to the right.

The flight began to drift northward of Route R20. About 50 minutes into the flight, the crew of KAL 007 reported crossing Bethel, the first waypoint, at 31,000 feet. They didn’t know it, but the plane was already 13.8 miles north of Bethel and outside the air route.

As they crossed the ocean, Chun and his crew saw nothing amiss, according to their communications with air traffic controllers. After Bethel, at the next waypoint, they reported all was well, but they were sixty-nine miles north of their route. At the next spot, they were 115 miles off course. After five hours in the air, they reported passing another waypoint, when in fact they were 184 miles north, heading directly toward the Kamchatka Peninsula of the Soviet Union. At one point the flight crew exchanged messages with another passenger plane that reported dramatically different winds—this should have alerted them they were off course. But it did not. The voices in the cockpit showed no alarm. They talked about mundane matters. One of the crew remarked, “Having a dull time …”

“I have heard there is currency exchange at our airport,” one said.

“What kind of money?” answered another.

“Dollar to Korean money,” came the response.

“Captain, sir, would you like to have a meal?” asked a cabin attendant.

“What?”

“Meal, is it already time to eat?”

“Let’s eat later.”

Another plane flew in the sky that night, circling close to the Soviet Union, an RC-135 four-engine jet used for intelligence missions by the U.S. air force. The RC-135, a converted Boeing 707, was a familiar spy plane, known to the Soviets. Osipovich, the interceptor pilot, recalled he had chased it many times. The RC-135 flights were monitoring Soviet ballistic missile tests on an intelligence mission known as Cobra Ball. The plane was crammed with cameras and special windows down one side to photograph a Soviet missile warhead as it neared its target. The upper surface of the wing on the side of the cameras was painted black to avoid reflection. The RC-135s were based on Shemya Island, a remote rocky outcropping in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

Soviet missile tests often aimed at the Kamchatka Peninsula. How the missiles landed could help the United States monitor arms control treaties and look for violations. The pictures could show how many MIRVs came from a missile and the final trajectory. The RC-135 planes flew in circular or figure-eight orbits with camera lenses aimed at the Soviet coastline, in anticipation of a test.

On the night of August 31, a missile test was expected and the RC-135 loitered in the sky, waiting. The RC-135 had a wingspan of 130 feet, compared to the 747, which stretched 195 feet and 10 inches across. Both had four engines, located under the wings. The 747 featured a prominent hump on the front of the fuselage for the upper passenger deck. As the RC-135 circled, at about 1 A.M., the larger 747 flew by, seventy-five miles south.

This was a critical moment of confusion for the Soviets. They had been tracking the RC-135 by radar. When the missile test didn’t happen, the RC-135 headed back to its base on Shemya Island, but Soviet radar didn’t see it turn and go home. On the way home, the RC-135 crossed the flight path of the 747 at one point. The Soviet radar somehow lost the RC-135 and picked up the 747, now unexpectedly heading directly for Kamchatka. The plane was given a number, 6065, and the track was annotated with an “81,” which meant one unidentified aircraft.2 It was the off-course Korean Air Lines flight, but the Soviet ground controllers thought it might be an RC-135. The radar tracked the plane as it approached Kamchatka, but not constantly. Radar contact was lost, and picked up again while the plane was about halfway over the peninsula.

When the airliner approached Kamchatka, Soviet air defense forces were slow to react. Controllers were groggy, commanders had to be awakened, and there were radar gaps. Transcripts of ground control conversations show they spotted the plane just as it flew over the air defense forces base at Yelizovo. They scrambled four interceptors. These planes zigzagged in the air for twenty minutes but could not find the jet, which was actually north of them, and they were forced to return to base. The plane flew on, straight out over the Sea of Okhotsk and toward Sakhalin Island, about seven hundred miles away. Radar contact was lost at 1:28 A.M.

The plane appeared again on Sakhalin Island radars at 2:36 A.M. Once again it was given the track number 6065. However, this time the annotation was changed to “91,” which meant one military aircraft.

The command post duty officer at the Su-15 regiment at Sokol tried that night to use a long-distance phone operator to reach a radar station, Burevestnik. Located on Iturup Island in the Kurils, Burevestnik had sent a message saying that a target was approaching Sakhalin.3

“Good morning,” the duty officer said to the long-distance operator, giving his secret code word, Oblako 535, and asking her to put through an urgent call to Burevestnik.

“Yes, high priority, urgent,” he insisted when she asked for the code again.

“Very well, wait,” she told him.

She asked for his phone number, then for his name. He gave it, and she didn’t understand.

He gave it again. He impatiently clicked on the receiver.

Four minutes passed. “There is no answer,” she replied.

“No answer?”

“No.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know why, there is no answer.”

“Did Burevestnik not answer?”

“There was no answer at the number at Burevestnik.”

“That cannot be …”

The operator asked, “What is that? What kind of organization is that?”

“It’s a military organization,” the duty officer said. “I need it now, operator, whatever it takes, but I must call there. It’s a matter of national importance. I’m not joking.”

“Just a minute. Just a minute.”

Five minutes after he started making the call, with the airliner flying eight miles a minute toward Sakhalin, the command post duty officer asked, “Well, what [is happening], eh?”

“Calling, no answer.”

Osipovich was napping at Sokol when the airliner approached Sakhalin. He was on duty, having taken the night shift so he could have the next day free; it was the first day of school and he was supposed to speak at his daughter’s class on the theme of “peace.” He ate and then dozed off watching television, and then awoke to check the guard.

Unexpectedly, the phone rang as he was getting dressed. He was ordered to rush out to the Su-15 and prepare for takeoff. The weather was poor as a frontal system rolled into Sakhalin. At 2:42 A.M. Osipovich ran to the plane and took off, flying toward the ocean, climbing to 26,000 feet. His call sign was “805.” Soon another Su-15 was in the air, and then a MiG 23 from the Smirnykh air base, also on Sakhalin. Osipovich had no idea what was going on; perhaps it was an elaborate training mission?

Soviet radar had resumed tracking the airliner and given it the same number as before, 6065. The conversations among ground controllers show they thought it might be an RC-135, although some had doubts. Not once in all the ground conversations nor in the transmissions to the pilots did anyone mention a Boeing 747. They directed Osipovich minute by minute toward the target, and told him: “The target is military, upon violation of State border destroy the target. Arm the weapons.”

Osipovich at first could only see the target as a dot, two or three centimeters. He had studied the RC-135s and knew the various Soviet civilian airliners, but he later recalled he had never studied the shape of foreign aircraft such as the Boeing 747.

A ground controller speculated, “If there are four jet trails, then it is an RC-135.” The 747 also had four engines.

“805, can you determine the type?” Osipovich was asked by the ground controller.

“Unclear,” he said.

Confusion reigned on the ground. No one wanted to be responsible for allowing another intrusion like the one on April 4. The Sokol command post duty officer, speaking to a superior, was asked if the incident was serious. “Yes, it looks serious, like on the fourth, but a bit worse,” he replied.

At 3:09 A.M. an order was given to destroy the plane, but then rescinded. The Sokol command post duty officer wondered if the Americans would really fly a spy plane directly into Soviet airspace. They usually circled outside territorial waters. “Somehow this all looks very suspicious to me,” he said. “I don’t think the enemy is stupid, so … Can it be one of ours?”

He called another command center at Makarov, on the eastern tip of the island, to see what they knew about the plane’s flight. “It hasn’t bombed us yet,” was the reply.

As he closed on the 747, about fifteen miles behind it, Osipovich saw his missile lock-on light illuminate. Yolki palki! he said, meaning “What the hell!” He turned off the missile lock-on and flew closer.

At 3:14 A.M., the commander of the Far East Military District was given a report. He was told Osipovich was ready to fire, but “he cannot identify it visually because it is still dark.”

“We must find out, maybe it is some civilian craft or God knows who,” said the commander.

“The pilot sees only a shadow,” said another ground controller.

“He cannot determine the type?”

“No way…it is dark, dark.”

Osipovich was now getting closer, 7.4 miles behind the airliner, which crossed Sakhalin. “It is flying with flashing lights,” he reported. Shortly after 3:12, Osipovich tried to contact the airliner by the Soviet friend-or-foe electronic identification system, but there was no response because the plane was civilian and did not carry a compatible military responder.

The Soviet ground controllers asked Osipovich six times whether the airliner was showing navigation lights, on the assumption that a plane without them might be on a spy mission. At 3:18, Osipovich reported, “The air navigation light is on, the flashing light is on.”

The Sokol ground controller told Osipovich to flash his lights briefly as a warning, and he did. Then, at 3:20, he was ordered to shoot a warning burst from his cannons. He did. There was no response. Then, unexpectedly, the airliner seemed to slow.

Unbeknownst to the Soviets, at 3:20, air traffic controllers in Tokyo had given Captain Chun permission to climb from 33,000 to 35,000 feet, and this caused the airliner to slow. Cockpit voice recordings show Chun and his crew never knew what was happening around them. Investigators later concluded that the change in altitude was seen by the Soviets as an evasive action and reinforced the suspicion that it was an RC-135 spy plane.

“805, open fire on the target,” ground control instructed Osipovich. But at that moment, Osipovich said he couldn’t because he had almost overtaken the airliner. “Well, it should have been earlier, where do I go now, I am already abeam of the target?” This statement that he was “abeam,” or alongside the airliner, suggested, to some, in retrospect, that Osipovich should have seen the 747’s distinctive hump. But investigators said radar tracks show that Osipovich was consistently behind the 747, and to the right. Osipovich also recalled later that his own plane “began to rock” at this point; he did not say why.4

In the next radio transmission, Osipovich said, “Now, I have fallen back from the target.” He added the airliner was at 33,000 feet and on his left. He does not indicate his own altitude—above or below the 747. If he was below the 747, it would have been harder to see the plane’s hump.

At 3:24, Osipovich’s radio crackled with orders: “805, approach target and destroy target!” The airliner was just slipping away from the Sakhalin coast. Osipovich recalled later it was at this point he had finally gotten a look at the plane, and he realized suddenly it was larger than an RC-135.

“Soon I could see it with my own eyes,” he recalled. “It was a big plane, and I thought it was a military-cargo plane because it had a flickering flash-light. There were no passenger plane routes, and there had been no occasions of any passenger planes losing their way…I could see it was a large plane. It wasn’t a fighter plane, but either a reconnaissance plane or a cargo plane.”5

He fired. At 3:25, two R98 air-to-air missiles streaked ahead, one a heat-seeker that locked onto a source of infrared radiation such as the engine exhaust, the other guided by a radar. They each carried forty-four pounds of high explosive designed to produce fourteen hundred steel fragments. The heat-seeking missile was fired first and took thirty seconds to reach the airliner. Osipovich saw an explosion.

“The target is destroyed,” he reported.

He broke away to the right. He was low on fuel, and landed back on the island.

The explosion tore a hole in the plane five feet wide and the cabin pressure plunged. “What’s happened?” asked a surprised cockpit crew member at the blast. The missile had sliced through the control cables and the Boeing pitched up, pressing people into their seats. The engines remained on, but the speed brakes—the flaps that usually try to stop the plane on the runway—extended from the wing, the landing gear came down and passengers were told to put out cigarettes and prepare for an emergency descent. “Put the mask over your nose and mouth and adjust the headband,” the passengers were told on the public address system. The first officer radioed to Tokyo, barely able to speak through his mask. “Rapid compressions descend to one zero thousand.”

At 33,850 feet, the plane leveled off and rolled, falling toward the sea at five thousand feet per minute. All were lost.

Reagan was awakened in the middle of the night at Rancho del Cielo by a phone call from Clark about the missing plane. Nancy Reagan recalled her husband’s first reaction was, “My God, have they gone mad?” and “What the hell are they thinking of?”6

Like punch-drunk fighters, the United States and Soviet Union began swinging wildly at each other in a melee of anger, indignation and error.

An ultra-secret Japanese-U.S. listening post had monitored some of the radio transmissions from Osipovich to his ground controller. A portion of these intercepts were sent to Washington, translated and transcribed. The initial transcript showed Osipovich was guided to the intruder and included his declaration “the target is destroyed.” In Washington, these words seemed to shout from the page. They showed the Soviets were guilty of wanton murder. But the transcript was only a piece of raw intelligence, far from the whole story. It did not reflect the intense confusion among the Soviet ground controllers, nor the presence of the RC-135. All through the event, the Soviet military had never made a careful effort at identification, inflamed as they were by their fears of another flyover like the one in April. This climate of chaos and misjudgment on the ground was not reflected in the printed transcript of the radio intercept. The catastrophe was a window into the weaknesses of the Soviet military system, an example of how imprecise judgments and poor equipment could go terribly awry, but that was not what Reagan and his men saw in the transcript.

In Washington, according to Seymour Hersh, a small group of analysts with air force intelligence realized within hours that the Soviets did not deliberately shoot down the airliner. These analysts prepared a secret presentation, using color slides, showing how the Cobra Ball mission may have led to the confusion. But in the heat of the moment, the presentation got little attention. The presentation made it to the White House twenty-three hours later, and even then made no impact amid the emotions of the day. As Hersh put it, the presentation “crash-landed.”7

Shultz seized on the transcript of Osipovich to make a point. He wanted to go public with it. Shultz recalled in his memoir that, after an intense debate, he persuaded the CIA to let him use the transcript, even though it had come from ultra-secret intelligence gathering in Japan. For reasons that are unknown, Shultz did not wait until more complete information or transcripts could be examined. He apparently did not see the air force presentation.

On September 1, at 10:45 A.M., Shultz appeared before reporters at the State Department. In remarks delivered in a cold fury, he declared, “The United States reacts with revulsion to this attack. Loss of life appears to be heavy. We can see no excuse whatsoever for this appalling act.” Shultz claimed the Soviets had tracked the airliner for two and a half hours, when in fact they had difficulty following it and lost track. He claimed unambiguously that the pilot was in position “with a visual contact with the aircraft, so that with the eye you could inspect the aircraft and see what it was you were looking at.” With the press conference, Shultz launched what became a major U.S. rhetorical offensive against the Soviets, accusing them of deliberately killing the people on the airliner.

Reagan cut short his vacation and returned to Washington. He invited congressional leaders to the White House on Sunday for what became a dramatic, closed-door meeting. Reagan played an eight-minute tape, a fragment of the intercept in which Osipovich said “the target is destroyed.” Senator Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican, said Reagan should seek revenge by expelling 269 KGB agents from the United States.

The briefing also led to the first public acknowledgment of the presence of the RC-135. The House Majority leader, Jim Wright, D-Texas, told reporters after the briefing that he heard the spy plane mentioned on the tape. White House officials rushed to say Wright was wrong, but they acknowledged, in the process of the denials, that there had been an RC-135 in the skies the day of the shoot down, which made for front-page stories the next day in the Washington Post and the New York Times. On Monday morning, September 5, Shultz asked for a full intelligence briefing about the spy plane, which he got at 8 A.M. Later that day, the State Department sent a four-page background paper to all American embassies that claimed the RC-135 could not have caused the shoot down. “The Soviets traced the Korean aircraft and the U.S. aircraft separately and knew there were two aircraft in the area, so we do not believe this was a case of mistaken identity,” the background paper said. It was wrong, like so much else said about the incident.8

Reagan recalled he wanted to spend the day by the White House pool. Instead, he sat in his damp trunks on a towel in his study rewriting a speech on a legal pad. The Osipovich tape had become a powerful propaganda bludgeon. Reagan said he rewrote the speech to “give my unvarnished opinion of the barbarous act.” During the address that evening, Reagan played part of the tape. “The 747 has a unique silhouette unlike any other plane in the world,” Reagan said. “There is no way a pilot could mistake this for anything other than a civilian airliner.” Reagan acknowledged there was an RC-135 in the air that night, but dismissed the possibility of confusion over it, saying it was back on the ground “for an hour when the murderous attack took place …”

Reagan added, “And make no mistake about it—this attack was not just against ourselves or the Republic of Korea. This was the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere. It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.”

While Reagan and Shultz were shaking their fists at Soviet brutality, within two days U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded the whole thing was probably an accident. At the CIA, Douglas MacEachin, deputy director of the operations center, had been on vacation in Boston, and rushed back to headquarters. Using large maps, he and others spent hours charting every known fact about the stray airliner, including the radio intercepts. Within a few hours, MacEachin recalled, they decided the Soviets had made a mistake, the same conclusion air force intelligence had also reached.9 In fact, the Soviets had not been sure what the airliner was, and had probably confused it with the American RC-135.10

The deputy CIA director, Robert M. Gates, later disclosed that this conclusion had been mentioned in the President’s Daily Brief—his morning intelligence report—on September 2. But some officials, he said, “just got carried away.”11

Andropov learned of the shoot down early on the morning of September 1, while he was still at home on the outskirts of Moscow. He was told that a U.S. warplane had been downed over Sakhalin. He knew the rules: if a foreign plane was detected in Soviet airspace, the intruder must be given a visual or radio signal ordering it to land on Soviet territory, and if ignored, the nearest border command post could order the plane destroyed. It had happened before. According to Dmitri Volkogonov, the historian, the practice was always to deny a shoot down: “It came down by itself.”12

At the Kremlin later in the day, just before a Politburo meeting, Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov approached Andropov and told him, “A plane’s been shot down. It turned out not to be American, but South Korean, and a civil aircraft, at that. We’ll find out more and report in greater detail.” Volkogonov said Andropov clearly had other sources of information, and replied, “Fine. But I was told there’d been a spy plane above Kamchatka. I’m flying to the Crimea later today after the meeting. I must have a rest and get some treatment. As for the plane, you sort it out.”

Dobrynin recalled seeing Andropov that day. Looking haggard and worried, Andropov ordered Dobrynin to rush back to Washington to deal with the crisis, saying, “Our military made a gross blunder by shooting down the airliner and it probably will take us a long time to get out of this mess.” Andropov called the generals “blockheads” who didn’t understand the implications of what they had done. Dobrynin said Andropov “sincerely believed,” along with the military, that the plane had made an intrusion into Soviet airspace as part of an intelligence mission to check Soviet radars. But even that, Andropov said, was no excuse for shooting it down instead of forcing it to land.13

After the three-hour Politburo meeting, Andropov went on holiday to Simferopol, where he stayed at one of several luxury villas reserved for the Soviet leadership. Accompanying him was not only his usual staff, but an entire medical facility. At this point, Konstantin Chernenko, long a weak acolyte of Brezhnev, took over running the Politburo meetings. Andropov never returned to the table.

Dobrynin said Andropov “was actually ready to admit the mistake publicly” but was talked out of it by Ustinov. The Soviet reaction was to lie about the events and cover up. The first bulletin from TASS on September 1 did not even mention the plane being shot down:

An unidentified plane entered the air space of the Soviet Union over the Kamchatka peninsula from the direction of the Pacific Ocean and then for the second time violated the air space of the USSR over Sakhalin Island on the night from August 31 to September 1. The plane did not have navigation lights, did not respond to queries and did not enter into contact with the dispatcher service.

Fighters of the anti-aircraft defense, which were sent aloft toward the intruder plane, tried to give it assistance in directing it to the nearest airfield. But the intruder plane did not react to the signals and warnings from the Soviet fighters and continued its flight in the direction of the Sea of Japan.14

The Politburo met again September 2, with Chernenko presiding. The Soviet rulers circled the wagons, and worried about whether to even admit the plane had been shot down. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko said he favored admitting that shots were fired but to insist “that we acted legally.” Defense Minister Ustinov then told the group, “I can assure the Politburo that our pilots acted in complete conformity with the requirements of their military duty, and everything stated in the submitted memorandum is the honest truth. Our actions were absolutely correct, insofar as the American-built South Korean aircraft flew 500 kilometers into our territory. It is extremely difficult to distinguish this aircraft by its shape from a reconnaissance aircraft. Soviet military pilots are prohibited from firing on passenger aircraft. But in this situation their actions were perfectly justified because in accordance with international regulations the aircraft was issued with several notices to land at our airfield.”

Mikhail Gorbachev, a younger, rising star among the aging Politburo members, said, “The aircraft remained above our territory for a long time. If it went off track, the Americans could have notified us, but they didn’t.”

Ustinov claimed the Korean aircraft had no lights. After firing warning shots, he said, the Soviet pilot “informed the ground that the aircraft was a combat one and had to be taken down.”

Gromyko: “We cannot deny that our plane opened fire.”

Viktor Grishin, then the Moscow party first secretary, asked, “And what was the South Korean pilot saying?”

Ustinov: “We didn’t hear anything.”

The KGB chief, Viktor Chebrikov, described the sea search, in waters up to 328 feet deep; Soviet ships and Japanese fishing vessels were in the area. “This means they can raise the plane’s black box, and we can too,” said Gromyko. The others worried aloud that evidence of a deliberate shoot down would come out. Gorbachev asked whether the Americans had detected the actual firing of the Soviet interceptor.

Chebrikov: “No, they haven’t. But I want to re-emphasize that our actions were entirely legitimate.”

Nikolai Tikhonov, a Brezhnev man and chairman of the Council of Ministers, said, “If we acted correctly, legitimately, then we have to say straight out that we shot this plane down.”

Gromyko: “We have to say that shots were fired. This should be said straightforwardly, to prevent our adversary from accusing us of deception.”

Grishin: “First of all, I’d like to underline that we should declare openly that the plane was shot down.” But he wanted the information dribbled out: first announce an investigation, and only later admit “the plane was fired at.”

Gorbachev: “First of all, I want to say that I’m convinced that our actions were lawful. Given that the aircraft remained above the Soviet territory for about two hours, it is difficult to presume that this was not a pre-planned action. We must show precisely in our statements that this was a crude violation of international conventions. We must not wait it out silently at the moment, we must take up an offensive position. While confirming the existing version, we must develop it further, by saying that we are seriously investigating the current situation.”15

In fact, the “existing version” was a lie. Gorbachev, said Volkogonov, “was concerned only about finding a way to extricate the leadership from an unseemly affair, and to shift the blame onto the other side.” The Politburo session reveals “a shocking lack of remorse—or even the expression of remorse—for the 269 victims of the crash,” Volkogonov added. “The tragic case of the South Korean Boeing became a pathetic symbol of Andropov’s rule.”16

Moscow did not acknowledge the shoot down until September 6 and delayed an official explanation for three more days. The obfuscation only deepened suspicions in the West. By silence and untruths, the Soviets seemed to be behaving exactly as Reagan said, like an evil empire. They claimed the plane was carrying out a CIA mission, deliberately flying into sovereign Soviet airspace as a trick. Then, with disclosure of the RC-135 in Washington, the Soviet propaganda machine went into overdrive. On September 5, Pravda, the party newspaper, said Reagan’s statements were “permeated with frenzied hatred and malice towards the Soviet state and socialism…”17 On September 9, at a two-hour press conference, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov asserted that the regional air defense unit had identified the intruding plane as an RC-135. He insisted that the plane was on an intelligence mission.

“The way this incident was dealt with throws light on the mentality of the Soviet leadership,” Volkogonov wrote later. “Andropov himself was silent on the issue for more than a month … The plane’s ‘black box’ had been found and brought to the surface. It was decided to say nothing of this, either to the world’s press or to Seoul, and Soviet ships were kept in the area for another two weeks to give the impression that the fruitless search was still going on.”

Reagan’s speeches bristled with outrage and revulsion, but in actions, he did not ratchet up confrontation. He rejected Thurmond’s demand to expel the KGB agents.18 Shultz won Reagan’s approval to go ahead with a scheduled meeting in Madrid with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Reagan did not want to close off nuclear arms control talks over the shoot down. “If anything,” Reagan recalled in his memoirs, “the KAL incident demonstrated how close the world had come to the precipice and how much we needed nuclear arms control: If, as some people speculated, the Soviet pilots simply mistook the airliner for a military plane, what kind of imagination did it take to think of a Soviet military man with his finger close to a nuclear push button making an even more tragic mistake?”

In Madrid, Shultz raised the airliner in his private, first meeting with Gromyko. “The atmosphere was tense,” he recalled. “He was totally unresponsive.” A larger meeting that followed was “brutally confrontational,” Shultz recalled. “At one point, Gromyko stood up and picked up his papers as though to leave. I think he half-expected me to urge him to sit down. On the contrary, I got up to escort him out of the room. He then sat down, and I sat down.” Gromyko said it was the most tense meeting he had ever conducted in dealing with fourteen secretaries of state. Shultz said “the meeting became so outrageous and pointless that we just ended it.”

The United States had attempted to embarrass Soviet officials and challenge their lies. The Soviet leaders saw the episode as a provocation, a deliberate attempt to trip them up.

On September 27 in Washington, Gates, the deputy CIA director, delivered to Shultz an intelligence assessment that said relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were as “pervasively bleak” as at any time since Stalin’s death in 1953. Gates said the Soviet leaders feared Reagan’s administration more than any in history.19

On September 28, Andropov issued one of the harshest condemnations ever of the United States, published in both Pravda and Izvestia and read on the evening television news broadcast. The Reagan administration, Andropov said, is on “a militarist course that represents a serious threat to peace … if anyone had any illusion about the possibility of an evolution for the better in the policy of the present administration, recent events had dispelled them completely.” According to Dobrynin, the word “completely” was emphasized. “The Soviet leadership had collectively arrived at the conclusion that any agreement with Reagan was impossible,” Dobrynin said.

A few days later, in the Crimea, Andropov went for a short walk in the park; lightly dressed, he became tired, and took a breather on a granite bench in the shade. His body became thoroughly chilled, and he soon began shivering uncontrollably. Volkogonov quotes Chazov, who treated Andropov for several years, as saying that when he examined Andropov in the morning, he found widespread inflammation, requiring surgery. “The operation was successful, but his body was so drained of strength that the post-operative wound would not heal…His condition gradually worsened, his weakness increased, he again stopped trying to walk, but still the wound would not heal…Andropov began to realize that he was not going to get any better.”20 Chazov wrote in his memoir, “On Sept. 30, 1983 the final countdown on Andropov’s health began.”21

In London, three “flash” telegrams from Moscow arrived in quick succession on Oleg Gordievsky’s desk on September 4. The first claimed that the shoot down was being used by the United States to whip up anti-Soviet hysteria. The second and third suggested that the airliner was on an intelligence mission. This story was later embroidered with bogus reports that the captain of the plane had boasted of his spying and shown friends the intelligence gear on the plane. None of the telegrams actually acknowledged that a Soviet interceptor had shot down the airliner. Two more telegrams followed a few days later urging KGB agents to plant stories that the Americans and Japanese were in full radio contact with the plane. At one point, it was falsely claimed, the pilot had radioed, “We’re going over Kamchatka.”22 Gordievsky recalled, “So manifestly absurd was this lie that many of my colleagues in the Residency were dismayed by the damage done to the Soviet Union’s international reputation.”23

Guk, the KGB chief in London, had been in Moscow during the shoot down, and he later took Gordievsky aside and told him that eight of the eleven Soviet air defense radar stations on Kamchatka and Sakhalin were not functioning properly.24 Dobrynin heard a similar account from Ustinov in Moscow.25

The telegrams from Moscow were passed to the British. Geoffrey Howe, then foreign secretary, recalled that one “very powerful impression quite quickly built up in my mind: the Soviet leadership really did believe the bulk of their own propaganda. They did have a genuine fear that ‘the West’ was plotting their overthrow—and might, just might, go to any lengths to achieve it.”26 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who also knew of the reports, visited Washington and met with Reagan on September 29. She found him worried that “the Russians seemed paranoid about their own security” and asking, “did they really feel threatened by the West or were they merely trying to keep the offensive edge?”27

“We had entered a dangerous phase,” Thatcher recalled years later. “Both Ronald Reagan and I were aware of it.” Her reaction was to reach out to specialists. “What we in the West had to do was to learn as much as we could about the people and the system which confronted us,” she wrote in her memoirs, “and then to have as much contact with those living under that system as was compatible with our continued security.” In the days after the shoot down, Thatcher arranged a seminar at her country home, Chequers, with Soviet experts. A list of possible participants came to her from the Foreign Office. “This is NOT the way I want it,” she wrote on the list, demanding “some people who have really studied Russia—the Russian mind—and who have had some experience of living there.”28

Eight scholars were invited, including Professor Archie Brown of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. Brown submitted a paper on the Soviet political system and power structure. At the seminar, Brown identified Gorbachev, the youngest member of the Politburo, as a likely future general secretary, saying he was “the best-educated member of the Politburo and probably the most open-minded,” and “the most hopeful choice from the point of view both of Soviet citizens and the outside world.”29

Thatcher was listening.

In the autumn, a wave of fear about nuclear war—a war scare—gripped both the Soviet Union and the United States. Soviet attacks on Reagan reached a fever pitch. According to Elizabeth Teague, a Soviet domestic affairs analyst at Radio Liberty, Soviet media in the years before 1983 had refrained from making personally abusive remarks about Western leaders. But after the Korean airliner was shot down, Soviet press portrayals of Reagan reached an unusually bitter level. “Reagan was described as dangerous, lying, unscrupulous, hypocritical, even criminal,” Teague recalled, “as a man who ‘scraped his fortune together’ by speculating in real estate while governor of California, defrauding the Internal Revenue Service, collaborating with the Mafia, and switching his political allegiances whenever it served his personal advantage.”

“In short,” she added, “he was portrayed as a man who could not be trusted and with whom it was impossible to do business.”30

The Soviet media repeated over and over again that the danger of nuclear war was higher than at any time since World War II. This may have been an outgrowth of Andropov’s demand in the spring for tougher propaganda to oppose the looming Pershing II deployments, and to rally the Soviet people for still more sacrifice at home. A documentary film shown on national television portrayed the United States as a dangerous “militaristic” power bent on world domination. The forty-five-minute film contrasted scenes of U.S. nuclear explosions and various U.S. missiles with scenes of war victims, Soviet war memorials and declarations of Moscow’s peaceful intentions. An internal letter to Communist Party members warned of a deterioration of relations with the United States over the next several years.31 Svetlana Savranskaya, a university student in Moscow that autumn, recalled the war scare was very real, especially for older people. They were taken into shelters once a week for civil defense lessons. They were told they would have only eleven minutes to find shelter before the bombs would arrive from Europe. “I remember going home and looking up at a map and asking, how long would it take the missiles to hit from the United States?” she said.32

At Camp David for Columbus Day weekend, Reagan watched the videotape of a forthcoming made-for-television movie, The Day After, about a fictional nuclear attack on a typical American city, Lawrence, Kansas. The film, starring Jason Robards, was scheduled for nationwide broadcast in November. It portrayed a bucolic and happy Midwestern town, the home of the University of Kansas, with boys playing football in the late-afternoon sun, a farm family preparing for a wedding, games of horseshoes in the backyard—the America that Reagan had long idealized. Then, in the background, news reports carry word of a crisis in Europe that blossoms into a full-scale nuclear alert. “We are not talking Hiroshima here,” says one character in the film. “Hiroshima was peanuts.” The crisis quickly spins out of control and European cities are hit with tactical nuclear weapons. Then, all eyes of Lawrence, Kansas, are cast skyward as America’s Minuteman missiles are fired at the Soviet Union from nearby military bases. The B-52s take off. Within thirty minutes, the Soviet missiles arrive and hit Lawrence, setting off the blast, heat and fallout of nuclear explosions. In the second half of the film, Robards, who plays a hospital surgeon, roams through a devastated landscape. He turns pale and his hair falls out from the radiation. He sees sickness, disease and lawlessness. When Robards urges a pregnant woman who survived the blast to have hope, she retorts, “Hope for what? We knew the score, we knew all about bombs and fallout, we knew this could happen for forty years and no one was interested! Tell me about hope!”

The film highlighted many of the fears of the day about nuclear war. It called attention to nuclear winter—that after a nuclear blast, the climate would change and snow would fall in summer.

In his diary, Reagan wrote:

Columbus Day. In the morning at Camp D. I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air November 20. It’s called “The Day After.” It has Lawrence, Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done, all $7 mil. worth. It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed. So far they haven’t sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled & I can see why…My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war.33

Edmund Morris, Reagan’s official biographer, said the film left Reagan “dazed” and produced the only admission he could find in Reagan’s papers that he was “greatly depressed.” Four days later, he said, Reagan was “still fighting off the depression caused by The Day After.”34

The next day, October 11, Jack F. Matlock Jr., the top Soviet specialist on the National Security Council, met a Soviet journalist he had known in earlier tours in Moscow. Sergei Vishnevsky, fifty-three, was a veteran columnist from Pravda. Matlock assumed he was bringing a message of some kind—Vishnevsky had good party connections and perhaps KGB connections too. “His trade is propaganda and his specialty the U.S.,” Matlock wrote in a memo afterward. They met at a cafeteria across the street from the Old Executive Office Building.

Vishnevsky was direct, so intent on making his points that he did not stop to debate Matlock on anything. His message: “The state of U.S.-Soviet relations has deteriorated to a dangerous point. Many in the Soviet public are asking if war is imminent.” Vishnevsky told Matlock he was worried that Andropov’s September 28 statement “was virtually unprecedented and is a reflection of the leadership’s current frustration …” While the point of the Andropov warning was, in part, to prepare the Soviet people for belt-tightening, Vishnevsky said “the leadership is convinced that the Reagan administration is out to bring their system down and will give no quarter; therefore they have no choice but to hunker down and fight back.”35

Vishnevsky said the Soviet economy was “a total mess, and getting worse,” and the leadership needed to lessen tensions to concentrate on economic matters. Moreover, he said, the Soviet leadership saw Reagan as increasingly successful, with the American economy improving and Reagan likely to run for reelection in 1984. The Soviets now realized they could not stop the Pershing II missile deployments, due in two months. Nor did they know what to do about these events; they were locked into their positions by their own truculence. Reagan’s reaction to the Korean airliner incident left Soviet leaders “wallowing in the mud.”

In October, Reagan was given a fresh briefing on the ultra-secret SIOP, the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the procedures for nuclear war. This was the sixth generation of the war plan, known as SIOP-6, which took effect on October 1, 1983. The new plan reflected the desire to give the president options to fight a protracted nuclear war.36 Reagan wrote in his diary: “A most sobering experience with Cap W and Gen. Vessey in the Situation room, a briefing on our complete plan in the event of a nuclear attack.”37

Reflecting later in his memoirs, Reagan recalled, “In several ways, the sequence of events described in the briefings paralleled those in the ABC movie. Yet there were still some people at the Pentagon who claimed a nuclear war was ‘winnable.’ I thought they were crazy. Worse, it appeared there were also Soviet generals who thought in terms of winning a nuclear war.”38

Shultz told Reagan in mid-October all the recent arms control proposals had gone nowhere. “If things get hotter and hotter, and arms control remains an issue,” Reagan told Shultz, “maybe I should go see Andropov and propose eliminating all nuclear weapons.” Shultz reminded him that it wasn’t likely Andropov would give up nuclear weapons. “Without an arsenal of nuclear weapons, the Soviets are not a superpower.”

Very suddenly, Reagan was swept into one of the most chaotic and uncertain periods of his presidency. Clark resigned as his national security adviser, to become secretary of the interior. Reagan promoted Clark’s deputy, Robert C. McFarlane, who had spent most of his time in previous months negotiating the Lebanon crisis. Across Western Europe, antinuclear rallies brought 2 million people into the streets to protest against the plan to deploy the Pershing II missiles.

On October 23, at 6 A.M., a lone driver steered a yellow Mercedes truck through the parking lot at the U.S. marine encampment at the Beirut International Airport in Lebanon. The truck, laden with the equivalent of over twelve thousand pounds of TNT, blew up and killed 241 U.S. military personnel and injured one hundred others, the most severe military death toll in Reagan’s presidency.39 When McFarlane woke him in the middle of the night with the news, Reagan’s face turned ashen. McFarlane recalled “he looked like a man, a 72-year-old man, who had just received a blow to the chest. All the air seemed to go out of him. ‘How could this happen?’ he asked disbelievingly. ‘How bad is it? Who did it?’” Then, on October 25, Reagan ordered U.S. forces to invade the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, on grounds that American students on the island were imperiled by instability following a coup.40 On October 27, Reagan led the memorial service at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for the Marines lost in Beirut. He was, McFarlane recalled, “clearly heart-broken.”

In the middle of it all, a secret written analysis from the CIA was brought to Reagan. It contained Gordievsky’s reports about RYAN, the KGB intelligence-gathering operation for signs of a nuclear attack. McFarlane recalled it reached Reagan in October, amid the Grenada and Lebanon crises, although the precise date is not known.41 Thatcher knew of the Gordievsky information as well, and may have told Reagan about it on her visit a few weeks earlier.

McFarlane was at first unsure whether the Soviets were as paranoid as it seemed in the Gordievsky materials. “It raised questions in my mind about whether this apparent paranoia was real, or a propaganda scheme being fed to Western Europe to drive a wedge between us and the allies,” McFarlane said. The presence of Foreign Minister Gromyko in the Politburo, he felt, was reassuring—with four decades’ experience in dealing with the United States, surely Gromyko knew that the United States would not launch nuclear war. But McFarlane said he grew more worried when separate intelligence reporting from Prague and Budapest showed that people were “genuinely alarmed about this.” McFarlane said on reading the material “I thought it was plausible that it was the real deal.”42

On October 28, Matlock sent a short, worried note to McFarlane. The American ambassador in Moscow, Arthur Hartman, had reported on an unsettling meeting with Gromyko. “The major thrust of Gromyko’s comment,” Matlock said, “was that the Soviet leaders are convinced that the Reagan administration does not accept their legitimacy, and that therefore it is not prepared to negotiate seriously with the USSR, but is actually dedicated to bringing down the system.” While Matlock noted there may be a “large self-serving element” in this argument, “I believe it is an argument used in policy debates among the Soviet leadership.”43

Driven by fears of a nuclear attack, in November 1983, construction crews were furiously excavating a deep underground bunker in the Ural Mountains for a new top-secret command center for the Strategic Rocket Forces. When complete, from this sheltered burrow the commanders could manage a nuclear war. Twice a day, explosions echoed through the mountains as construction crews burrowed deeper and deeper into the granite. Tunnels already reached thousands of feet into the rock, but the project was far from complete. Water filled the dim passageways. The first electronic gear was being brought into the depths of the cavity for tests. The code name for the bunker was Grot, or grotto in Russian. The excavation at Grot, and the extensive underground bunkers for the leadership in Moscow, provoked worry and puzzlement among the American intelligence analysts. They wondered, what were the Soviets thinking? That they could survive and fight a nuclear war?

Soviet paranoia reached a zenith at the time of a planned NATO exercise in Europe scheduled for November 2–11. The exercise, Able Archer ’83, was designed to practice the procedures for a full-scale simulated release of nuclear weapons in a European conflict. The Soviets had long feared that training exercises could be used as a disguise for a real attack; their own war plans envisioned the same deception. According to Gordievsky, two features of Able Archer ’83 caused particular alarm in Moscow. First, the procedures and message formats for the shift from conventional to nuclear war were quite different from those on previous exercises. Second, this time, imaginary NATO forces were to be moved through all the alert phases, from normal readiness to general alert. The exercise may have been misinterpreted by the KGB as a real alert.44

In the original scenario of the Able Archer exercise, high-level officials were to play a role, including the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with cameo appearances by Reagan and Bush. If the Soviets knew this, it may have contributed to their anxiety. McFarlane recalled that on learning in general of Soviet worry about the exercise, he asked the president to pull out, and Reagan agreed. “It wasn’t a hard sell,” McFarlane recalled. Reagan felt puzzlement and anxiety.45

On November 5, Moscow sent to the KGB residency in London a detailed checklist of possible preparations for a surprise nuclear attack. By this time, the KGB had established a “Strategic Section” in the Moscow headquarters for evaluating intelligence from RYAN.46 The telegram from Moscow warned that once a decision for a surprise nuclear attack had been made, there would only be seven to ten days before it was carried out, and that a close eye should be kept on British government officials and their workplaces for hints that something was underway.

On the night of November 8 or 9, flash telegrams were sent from Moscow to Soviet intelligence agents across Western Europe, mistakenly reporting an alert at U.S. bases. The telegrams gave two possible reasons for the U.S. alert. One was concern for the security of U.S. bases in the wake of the Beirut bombing. That might be normal and understandable. The other reason, Gordievsky said, was that it marked the start of preparations for a nuclear first strike. The Soviet intelligence agents were to report urgently on the reasons for the American “alert” and other indicators of war planning.47

During the Able Archer exercise, Gates recalled, there was considerable activity by Soviet and other Warsaw Pact military forces. Soviet military weather broadcasts were taken off the air during the exercise. Units of the Soviet Fourth Air Army had gone to increased readiness, and all combat flight operations were suspended from November 4 to 10, he added. Tensions eased slightly at the end of the exercise on November 11.

The superpowers did not trip a wire into war, but Reagan crossed a bridge of his own. For the first time, uncharacteristically introspective, he acknowledged that the Soviet leaders may have harbored true fears of attack. He wrote in his diary November 18: “I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way soft on them, we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that. What the h–l have they got that anyone would want. George is going on ABC right after its nuclear bomb film Sunday night. It shows why we must keep on doing what we’re doing.”

When ABC broadcast the film The Day After on November 20, it drew 100 million viewers, then the second-largest audience in history for a single television program. The first Pershing II missiles were deployed in Germany three days later, on November 23. The Soviets then walked out of the arms control talks in Geneva.

Reagan later recalled in his memoir, “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. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. In fact, I had difficulty accepting my own conclusion at first.” He said he felt “it must be clear to anyone” that Americans were a moral people who, since the founding of the nation, “had always used our power only as a force for good in the world.” After World War II, the United States rebuilt the economies of its former enemies, he noted.

“During my first years in Washington,” Reagan said, “I think many of us in the administration took it for granted that the Russians, like ourselves, considered it unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against them. But the more experience I had with the Soviet leaders and other heads of state who knew them, the more I began to realize that many Soviet officials feared us not only as adversaries but as potential aggressors who might hurl nuclear weapons at them in a first strike; because of this, and perhaps because of a sense of insecurity and paranoia with roots reaching back to the invasions of Russia by Napoleon and Hitler, they had aimed a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons at us.”

In December, Reagan was thinking anew about his dream of eliminating all nuclear weapons. “This is his instinct and his belief,” Shultz told his aides at the State Department. “The president has noticed that no one pays any attention to him in spite of the fact that he speaks about this idea publicly and privately.”48 Shultz promised Reagan to study the idea. Reagan told Shultz on December 17 that he wanted to make a major speech about his desire to get rid of nuclear weapons. Reagan drafted a letter to Andropov on December 19 saying “we do not seek to challenge the security of the Soviet Union and its people.”49

When Reagan spoke on January 16, 1984, many journalists assumed that it was the opening salvo of his reelection campaign. Reagan felt rejuvenated by his success with the Pershing II missiles, and he had decided to run for a second term. But this was not the only motivation. Reagan had read the top-secret reports from Gordievsky about Soviet war fears; he had personally rehearsed the nuclear war plan, the SIOP; and he had experienced a real crisis with the Soviets over the KAL shoot down. His own desire to eliminate nuclear weapons burned even more intensely than before. “Something has happened to the man,” a White House official said of Reagan.50

In the address, which was broadcast also to Europe, Reagan did not refer once to an “evil empire” nor to communism falling into the dustbin of history. He did not talk about changing the Soviet system from within. Rather, he declared, “We do not threaten the Soviet Union.” He stressed “dialogue,” “constructive cooperation” and “peaceful competition.” And he declared, “My dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.”

Then Reagan delivered the ending he had written himself:

Just suppose with me for a moment that an Ivan and an Anya could find themselves, oh, say, in a waiting room or sharing a shelter from the rain or a storm with a Jim and Sally. And there was no language barrier to keep them from getting acquainted.

Would they then debate the differences between their respective governments? Or would they find themselves comparing notes about their children and what each other did for a living? Before they parted company, they would probably have touched on ambitions and hobbies and what they wanted for the children and problems of making ends meet.

And as they went their separate ways, maybe Anya would be saying to Ivan: “Wasn’t she nice. She also teaches music.” And Jim would be telling Sally what Ivan did or didn’t like about his boss. They might even have decided they were all going to get together for dinner some evening soon.

Above all they would have proven that people don’t make wars. People want to raise their children in a world without fear and without war. They want to have some of the good things over and above bare subsistence that make life worth living. They want to work at some craft, trade or profession that gives them satisfaction and a sense of worth. Their common interests cross all borders.

If the Soviet Government wants peace, then there will be peace. Together we can strengthen peace, reduce the level of arms and know in doing so that we have helped fulfill the hopes and dreams of those we represent and, indeed, of people everywhere. Let us begin now.

Reagan had turned a corner. He was ready for the next act in the great drama.

Two days after Reagan’s speech, Gordievsky got another telegram from Moscow on the RYAN intelligence-gathering operation. The spymasters were still searching for signs of nuclear war. The KGB believed that clues to a possible nuclear first strike could be found by looking at banks, post offices and slaughterhouses. The KGB urged its agents to check out “mass slaughter of cattle and putting meat into long cold storage.”

On January 2, 1984, Fritz W. Ermarth became the national intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, taking up a key position attempting to synthesize intelligence from many different sources to guide policy makers. Ermarth had previously worked on Soviet issues at the CIA and the White House National Security Council. Almost immediately, the deputy director for intelligence, Gates, gave him an urgent assignment: to write a Special National Intelligence Estimate on the tense situation with the Soviet Union. “The issue was terribly important,” Gates recalled. “Had the United States come close to a nuclear crisis the preceding fall and not even known it? Was the Soviet leadership so out of touch that they really believed a preemptive attack was a real possibility? Had there nearly been a terrible miscalculation?”

Ermarth’s report was finished May 18, 1984. He concluded that the war scare did not lead the Soviets to fear nuclear attack. Ermarth said “we knew a lot about Soviet and Warsaw Pact war plans. In effect, we had many of their military cook books.”51 Thus, he said, the United States could easily compare what the Soviets were doing with the real war plans. “This permitted us to judge confidently the difference between when they might be brewing up for a real military confrontation or, as one wag put it, just rattling their pots and pans.” He concluded they were just rattling the pots and pans.

Ermarth’s report declared at the outset: “We believe strongly that Soviet actions are not inspired by, and Soviet leaders do not perceive, a genuine danger of imminent conflict or confrontation with the United States.”52 Ermarth said that there were plenty of other explanations for Soviet behavior, including a propaganda campaign. The Kremlin may have been seeking ways to raise anxiety about the deployment of the Pershing II missiles and encourage the antinuclear movement in Western Europe. Ermarth took note of the heightened Soviet alerts during Able Archer, but he didn’t think much of them. His conclusion was: “Although the Soviet reaction was somewhat greater than usual, by confining heightened readiness to selected air units, Moscow clearly revealed that it did not in fact think there was a possibility at this time of a NATO attack.”53

Ermarth knew about Gordievsky’s materials and RYAN. But there were a few important secrets that Ermarth did not know. When he wrote the estimate, he did not know the full extent of the provocative, top-secret U.S. naval exercises in the Pacific Ocean during the spring of 1983. The navy had not told him.54 “I tried to find out more about it but was unsuccessful,” he said. “I think some sort of junior people in the office of naval intelligence just said, ‘You’ve got to understand, we’ve got some stuff going on here we can’t talk about.’” Among other things, Ermarth said he didn’t know about the F-14 flyover.55

Gates concluded that, in retrospect, the CIA had missed an important turning point. “After going through the experience at the time, then through the post-mortems, and now through the documents, I don’t think the Soviets were crying wolf,” he wrote in his memoirs. He added of the Soviets, “They may not have believed a NATO attack was imminent in November 1983, but they did seem to believe that the situation was very dangerous. And U.S. intelligence had failed to grasp the true extent of their anxiety.”56 Although it remains classified, a review of the CIA’s performance on the war scare came to a similar conclusion in 1990.57

The war scare was real.

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