Unbeknownst to most of the world, the United States and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war in November 1983. Yet it was this close scrape with disaster that ultimately led to the peaceful end of the Cold War, according to one man whose father was there.
John Clauson grew up believing his father was an IBM computer salesman. But when he was in his mid-30s, he finally learned the truth: Wallace Clauson was actually a genius nuclear mathematician who took his orders from the Defense Department. His job was to ensure America’s vast arsenal of nuclear missiles hit their targets.
John Clauson shares the full story of his father’s hidden life in his new book “Missileman: The Secret Life of Cold War Engineer Wallace Clauson.”
One of the more fascinating tidbits Clauson shares in his book is that the Cold War nearly erupted into a hot nuclear war in 1983 during what was known as the Able Archer 83 exercise.
“In the late ’70s, the Russians were really on a roll,” Clauson recalled during a recent interview on Freedom Friday with Carl Gallups. “They had invaded Afghanistan and they had become very aggressive with the Eastern bloc countries in lining up what they call SS-20s, their mobile missile launchers with very accurate short-range missiles, and they’re parked all along the Eastern bloc countries, very close to Europe.”
President Jimmy Carter planned to counter these SS-20s by bringing more Pershing and cruise missiles into Germany. The Carter administration was discreet about these plans; however, when Ronald Reagan became president, he boasted about the plan.
“As we know, Ronald Reagan was very aggressive in his attitude and tone towards the Russians,” Clauson said. “He called them the ‘Evil Empire,’ he threatened them with Star Wars. And soon after Ronald Reagan became president, the Russians in May of 1981 expected that Ronald Reagan was going to attack Russia.”
It didn’t help when, in October 1983, Reagan invaded the former British colony of Grenada without notifying British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, all to prevent the tiny island from falling to communists.
It also didn’t help when, that same month, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam delivered a speech on “superpower relations emphasizing the immediate threat posed by the Soviet Union.”
Against this backdrop, NATO prepared to conduct its annual Able Archer exercise. Able Archer simulated a period of conflict escalation which culminated in a pretend DEFCOM 1 coordinated nuclear attack. The sole purpose of the exercise was to check the communication systems and computer controls which would need to be used in the event of a real nuclear attack.
Wallace Clauson flew to Casteau, Belgium, to take part in the 1983 Able Archer exercise. His job was to coordinate the fake nuclear launch by making sure all “missiles” stayed on track. More importantly, he had to make sure the computer codes used to launch the missiles were not live.
Although the Russians had monitored NATO Able Archer exercises before, the tense geopolitical climate in the fall of 1983 led them to suspect this exercise might be an actual nuclear strike. So they prepared accordingly.
They lined airport runways in the USSR and Eastern Europe with bombers on standby. Their nuclear submarines in the Arctic hid under the ice, ready to launch missiles. They dispersed 75 mobile missiles into the field around the country.
“For three days, the Russians were at DEFCOM 2 (preparation for responding to a nuclear attack),” Clauson said. “They were expecting nuclear war, and we had no idea, and when my father was telling me this, he told me, ‘Johnny, when I found out that they had gone to DEFCOM 2, I thought I could have been vaporized.’ Let me tell you, if your father tells you he was going to be vaporized, you’ll never forget that.”
Of course, when the 10-day exercise ended, the Soviets realized it had been only that – an exercise. But a double agent named Oleg Gordievsky informed CIA director William Casey that Russia had gone into DEFCOM 2 during Able Archer, believing the U.S. was going to launch a real nuclear attack. Casey then passed this information to President Reagan.
When Reagan learned how close the world had come to nuclear war, he began to change his tone, according to Clauson. He abandoned any talk of the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” and began to focus on cooperation and the two superpowers’ shared desire for peace.
“[Reagan] goes, ‘Did they really think I was going to nuke them?’ and that’s what ended the Cold War,” Clauson asserted. “Ronald Reagan started back-channeling to the Russians, saying, ‘Listen, I’m not crazy. We’ve got to look for mutual areas where we can agree.’ [Mikhail] Gorbachev surfaces 15 to 17 months later.
“So that’s how the Cold War really ended. It wasn’t that we scared them into spending – obviously they didn’t want to spend like we could, but that’s what really did it, when Ronald Reagan realized they were at DEFCOM 2. It’s the only time the Russians were at DEFCOM 2, and we had no idea. That is very, very dangerous. It would have been terrible for us.”