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


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

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

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