The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983

Marc Ambinder. Simon & Schuster, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4767-6037-7
Journalist Ambinder’s account of a serious threat of global annihilation—stemming from a 1983 NATO war exercise—is spellbinding. Ambinder lays out the grave weaknesses in America’s nuclear command-and-control structure in the early 1980s: the process the president was supposed to use to make decisions about whether to launch nuclear missiles was much too long, and the U.S.’s early warning system was unreliable. Those problems informed the Reagan administration’s approach to the Soviets; in order to mask the U.S.’s vulnerability to a first strike, Reagan sought to add to America’s nuclear arsenal (feeling that “the best way to reduce the threat to the U.S. would be to increase the threat to the Soviet Union”). The practical implications of this dysfunction manifested during Able Archer 83, “an annual dry run” of the transfer of NATO’s nuclear warheads from American control to European custodians, when a change in communication methods and patterns gave the Soviets the mistaken impression that the exercise might be a cover for an American first strike on the Soviet Union, which readied troops and nuclear weaponry to respond. While disaster was averted, Ambinder illuminates the fragility of existing safeguards against an unintentional launch, a timely topic given concerns about Iran and North Korea. He also walks the reader through the Reagan administration’s and the Soviet government’s respective internal debates about diplomatic and military strategy. This is a masterpiece of recent history. Agent: Eric Lupfer, Fletcher & Co. (July)
Reviewed on: 05/28/2018
Release date: 07/10/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 400 pages - 978-1-4767-6038-4
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