1983: American President Ronald Reagan didn’t mince his words. The previous year, he had predicted that the West would consign Marxism and Leninism to the “ash heap of history”. In March 1983, he labelled the Soviet Union “an evil empire”.
Also in March, Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, intended to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. In April, the United States Navy conducted a large fleet exercise in the northern Pacific. An important NATO exercise was planned for Europe in November, around the same time that Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles were to be deployed in West Germany.
Viewed from Moscow, all this bellicose rhetoric and activity was highly alarming. Was it the prelude to a sneak attack on the Soviet Union?
“Never, perhaps, in the postwar decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence, more difficult and unfavourable, as in the first half of the 1980s,” Mikhail Gorbachev later observed.
On 1 September, a Soviet interceptor shot down a Korean airliner over the Sea of Japan, near the island of Sakhalin. The Korean plane had strayed into prohibited Soviet airspace; all 269 passengers and crew on board were killed.
Just after midnight on 27 September, a Soviet early-warning satellite detected the launch of missiles from the United States. Stanislav Petrov was duty officer at a command bunker near Moscow; it was his job to evaluate the threat. Was it for real? Was it a false alarm? He had only minutes to decide. If his initial assessment was that a salvo of American missiles was on its way, the Soviet leadership might well authorise a retaliatory attack.
Lacking corroborative evidence, Petrov relied on gut instinct. He decided it was a technical error. He was right; there were no incoming missiles. The Soviet satellite had in fact detected sunlight shining on high-altitude clouds.
The wider world, had it been aware of what was happening, would have breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Source: David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: Reagan, Gorbachev and the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race (2011), pp. 6–11