Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: Looking for Shapes in Mushroom Clouds: Nuclear Fear during the Reagan Administration
Abstract: For many Americans, the prospect of nuclear war seemed increasingly likely during the early years of the Reagan Administration. The President came into office and immediately began work on fulfilling campaign pledges to increase and modernize the United States' nuclear arsenal. Reagan also began what Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin termed an "uncompromising ideological offensive," setting the stage for increasingly high profile and tense confrontations with the Soviet Union. While Reagan would leave office having achieved significant arms reductions and progress in other areas of arms control, this did not seem a likely end during his first term. This panel will examine how a variety of actors responded to their fears of nuclear war during the first six years of the Reagan Administration and how this aided the goal of reducing nuclear weapons.
Susan Colbourn examines how Nuclear Freeze Movement activists influenced the Reagan Administration's approach in both domestic and foreign policy. Simon Miles offers a new look at the Able Archer war scare of 1983 and argues that many of the historical narratives around the crisis overstate how close the exercise came to turning real. Ben Griffin argues that Reagan developed a unique understanding of the balance of power in Europe and that this when paired with his own fears of a nuclear apocalypse led him to seek the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. All three papers rely on archival materials from both North America and Europe and make new and important contributions to the historiography surrounding the end of the Cold War and the Reagan Administration. The discussant, noted Reagan scholar Gail Yoshitani, will offer insight on how nuclear fears link all three papers and shaped the Reagan Administration's approach to the Cold War.
Benjamin Griffin, United States Military Academy
Participant's Paper Title: War of Imagination: Ronald Reagan, Red Storm Rising, and Reykjavik
Participant's Paper Abstract: Ronald Reagan shocked many of his closest advisors and allies at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit. In their eyes, his apparent readiness to eliminate nuclear weapons threatened the stability of Europe and the ability of the United States to achieve its strategic objectives. A nuclear-disarmed NATO would be unable to counter the advantage the Warsaw Pact held in conventional forces, which would increase the likelihood of Soviet adventurism. Reagan viewed the likely outcome of a non-nuclear World War III far differently, believing that NATO could not only hold against enemy forces in such a conflict but also take the offensive and decisively win.
This paper argues that Reagan's belief in the prospects of NATO's success in a conventional war stemmed from his reading of Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy. Through use of evidence from archives in the United Kingdom and the United States, interviews with senior officials in the Reagan and Thatcher Administrations, military doctrine, and interviews with Clancy's collaborators on the book, it argues that the realistic portrayal of a potential war in Europe provided a narrative version of information that Reagan received through standard channels. Reagan then used the book as a creative space to visualize the potential conflict and concluded nuclear weapons were unnecessary. This, along with his longstanding abhorrence of the weapons, led him to seek far greater reductions in arms than his advisors and allies were comfortable with. It contributes to the historiography of Reagan's strategic thinking, the end of the Cold War, and the role of fiction in strategic thought.
Simon Miles, Duke Univesity
Participant's Paper Title: The War Scare That Wasn't: Able Archer and the Myths of the Second Cold War
Participant's Paper Abstract: Did the reinvigorated Cold War of the early 1980s nearly turn hot? Did NATO's Able Archer 83
command post exercise cause the Soviet Union to suspect a US-led nuclear first strike from the
West, leading to considerations of preemptive war at the highest levels of Kremlin policymaking?
According to the conventional wisdom, the answer to the above is a resounding 'yes.'
With superpower tensions running high in the early 1980s, scholars point to Able Archer 83 as an
episode that brought the two to the brink of nuclear war due to a Soviet misperception that the
routine command post exercise masked a surprise nuclear attack. This paper overturns this
narrative using new, international evidence collected from intelligence, military, and political
archives in the Czech Republic, Germany, and Russia, as well as in the United Kingdom and
United States. Thanks to largely unfettered access to archives in post-communist states, a wide
range of documentation on Able Archer 83 is now available; these new documents from Warsaw
Pact archives paint a very different picture of Able Archer 83 to the prevailing narrative.
First, this paper shows that the much-touted Warsaw Pact intelligence effort to assess
Western intentions and capabilities, Project RIaN, which supposedly triggered Eastern fears of a
surprise attack was nowhere near operational at the time of Able Archer 83. Second, it presents
an account of the East's sanguine observations of Able Archer 83 disproving accounts which
allege that the exercise nearly escalated to nuclear war. In doing so, it advances debates not only
in the historiography of the late Cold War, but also pertaining to the stability of the nuclear peace
and the role of perception and misperception in policy-making, sometimes long after the fact.
Susan Colbourn, University of Toronto
Participant's Paper Title: Of Moons and Green Cheese: Ronald Reagan, the Euromissiles, and the Nuclear Freeze
Participant's Paper Abstract: On November 18, 1981, in a speech at the National Press Club, President Ronald Reagan laid out
the US negotiating position for a series of arms control talks with the Soviet Union set to begin at
the end of the month, the intermediate-range nuclear force (INF) talks. The president's
negotiating position proposed to trade a stop the deployment of Pershing II ballistic missiles and
ground-launched cruise missiles to Western Europe, scheduled for the autumn of 1983, if the
Soviet Union removed existing intermediate-range systems already deployed. In essence, it
would trade zero US deployments for zero Soviet missiles, earning it the name "the zero option."
The zero option was seen as an effort to combat public perceptions of Reagan and his
administration as reckless, bombastic, and bent on confrontation with the Soviet Union. The
tendency to view the zero option as a public relations tactic, however, means that the ways in
which the proposal reflected Reagan's own views of arms control have gone largely ignored.
This paper considers the creation and evolution of the zero option, exploring how visions of
nuclear war amongst both policy-makers and publics created a discourse which shaped US arms
control policy, its relations with the Soviet Union, and its relations with its transatlantic partners.
It demonstrates how anti-nuclear activism, both at home and abroad, influenced Reagan's
strategy and, at the same time, contributed to perceptions of the president as a hardliner which
made his later conciliation with the Soviet Union appear to be an abrupt break.
Gail Yoshitani, United States Military Academy

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