Monday, April 23, 2018

Taylor Downing's 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink

Taylor Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink is a thrilling, frightening, and thought-provoking account of a period in history when the world came closest to nuclear annihilation. Through his descriptions of US and Soviet leadership, and events prior to, and during, 1983, what emerges is a picture of two sides who knew almost nothing about how the other side thought, and of simple misinterpretations and miscalculations that came disturbingly close to causing catastrophic events. Throughout the book, Downing does an outstanding job of explaining complex, difficult topics in a way that makes it easy for the lay person to understand and follow.  Whether he is describing the events that led to the Soviets shooting down KAL 007, the spycraft of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, or the November 1983 war game “Able Archer” that almost led to nuclear war, Downing writes clearly, compellingly, and persuasively.  He has managed to craft a careful and convincing argument about the importance and centrality of Able Archer and its consequences, while writing in a way that keeps the reader turning pages frantically.  His discussion of the aftermath of Able Archer, and particularly of the relationship that develops between Reagan and Gorbachev, is measured and unsentimental.  He does not offer a neat, tidy resolution to the narrative.  He makes it clear that Reagan and Gorbachev missed opportunities for radical change and never agreed ultimately on the key issue of the “Star Wars” defense initiative.  What the end of the book does strongly suggest is the importance of genuine intelligence, careful and objective analysis, and diplomacy that builds out from a solid understanding of the other side.

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