"Character: Profiles in Presidential Courage" — Chapter Excerpt

by Chris Wallace

Chapter 11  

The Zero Option: Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union

In the fall of 1983, while monitoring satellite activity inside a top-secret surveillance bunker just 55 miles from Moscow, Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet army, heard an alarm sound. He put down his cup of tea and looked up at his computer screen. It appeared that the United States had just launched a nuclear missile. Petrov sat stunned, his hands trembling. It made no sense.

Or perhaps it did. Only months earlier, President Ronald Reagan had begun ratcheting up his rhetoric about the arms race.  He had outraged Russian leaders by calling the Soviet Union “the evil empire.” Reagan had cut America’s domestic programs but poured money into the military. Under his proposed budget, by 1985 the Pentagon would be spending more than $30 million every single hour on defense. More recently, the United States had begun moving a set of medium-range nuclear weapons into Europe. Soviet leaders worried this was just a cover for an invasion—Russia’s own contingency plans for nuclear war involved just this kind of deployment.

Further straining tensions, just three weeks before the Soviet military had shot down a Korean airliner, killing all 269 passengers on board, including 61 Americans.

Petrov had to act. He knew Soviet policy required an immediate counter-launch of its own nuclear arsenal should the United States attack, but that action would surely trigger massive retaliation by the United States. Within minutes, millions of people on both sides of the planet would be dead.

Petrov checked ground radar for corroboration, but it showed no signs of approaching missiles. The older ground system would be minutes behind anyway, and it could hardly be trusted over the year-old, cutting-edge satellite system that Petrov’s computer monitored.

Three minutes passed. It must have been a false alarm. After all, Petrov thought, they wouldn’t start an attack with just one missile. The alarm sounded again. Lights flashed. Indications of a second missile ran across the screen—and then a third, a fourth, and finally a fifth. At this point, Petrov feared the worst, but he knew that any action on his part would trigger an irreversible chain of events. His standing orders were to send important information up the chain of command, where it would immediately be transmitted to the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Yuri Andropov. Andropov would no doubt unleash return fire immediately. Instead, Petrov held tight.

All the systems appeared to be working properly, but in his gut, Petrov sensed something might be wrong. Disobeying procedure, he called his superior and reported a false alarm. If he was mistaken, within a quarter of an hour mushroom clouds would envelop city after Russian city with utter devastation, and he would be responsible for having failed to alert the Kremlin leadership. Petrov sweated out the ticking clock.

Four hours later, with no sign of incoming warheads, an investigation team arrived from Moscow. For three days, they held and interrogated Petrov and his colleagues. Ultimately, the investigators discovered that the alarms had been triggered by no more than sunlight reflecting off clouds at an unforeseen angle—a statistical anomaly made it appear that America had let loose the opening salvo of a nuclear war. In an era of Cold War and fragile peace, this minor equipment failure had nearly provoked Armageddon.

Three years later, U.S. President Ronald Reagan arrived at Hofdi House, a small government guesthouse in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was seven minutes early for a meeting with the current
Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reagan’s fur-collared overcoat was buttoned all the way up as he entered the house. Observers noted the sleeves were too long— an old coat from the depths of his closet, they imagined. A year go at the summit in Geneva, Reagan had greeted Gorbachev on a bitterly cold November morning wearing just his suit jacket. This was a bit of stagecraft. The 74-year-old Reagan wanted to show he could stand up to the Russian leader two decades his junior.  As Gorbachev fumbled with his scarf and overcoat, a beaming, confident Reagan towered over him. Cameras flashed—and the Russians knew they had lost the first skirmish in the war of images. This time, perhaps as a polite gesture, Reagan wore a coat.

Gorbachev arrived one minute early, in an overcoat, plaid scarf, and his trademark fedora. His entrance caught Reagan by surprise. The President stepped out of the house to greet him. Reagan made a reference to the time. Gorbachev looked at his watch and shrugged.

Low expectations had been set for the Reykjavik summit. It was to be an informal meeting between the two men—a “private meeting,” Reagan had said. But the people of Reykjavik were prepared for history. The streets were lined with merchants selling wool sweaters with pictures of the two leaders, scarves knitted with the stars and stripes on one end and the hammer and sickle on the other, and even gold commemorative ashtrays. A high school gymnasium was transformed into a press room for the 2,000 journalists, complete with local delicacies including herring, smoked lamb, and honey-flavored yogurt. For Reykjavik, this was an event that happened only once in a lifetime. The leaders of the world’s competing superpowers were meeting on neutral ground to negotiate for the future of the planet.

There had not been true peace between the two nations since just after World War II. The postwar alliance forged by Josef Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt had fallen apart, and the U.S. and the USSR had since vied for influence worldwide. Starting in Berlin in 1948, the contest between democracy and Communism spread over the years to Hungary, Italy, China, Greece, Vietnam, Cuba, Angola, Grenada, and Afghanistan. With massive outlays of both capital and troops, the nations battled for ideological and strategic supremacy.

The presence of nuclear weapons heightened the stakes as the postwar world took shape. With worries of first-strike and counter-strike capabilities, national defense plans contemplated casualty figures in the hundreds of millions. A nuclear war, both sides knew, would be a war no one could win.

But still, the weapons arsenals continued to grow and the bad feelings continued to rise. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev negotiated a period of détente—the relaxation of tensions—designed to create more cooperation between the two nations. They hoped to increase trade, sign arms control agreements, and lower the overall acrimony on both sides. Despite incremental gains, the “big breakthrough” hadn’t happened—the underlying tensions between the two competing systems seemed immutable.

By the time Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, little progress had been made. There had been no significant reductions in arms, and the Soviets were actively expanding their power in Afghanistan, Africa, and Central America. The trade agreements produced by détente (American advisers called one “The Great Grain Robbery” because of its generous terms in favor of the Soviets) were helping support a faltering Soviet economy. Trade deals brokered between the United States and the Soviet Union were allowing the Russians to continue to invest large sums of money in nuclear weapons programs.

Reagan came into office with a new attitude. Unlike his predecessors, he was not willing to prolong the Soviet empire.  In his opinion, the United States instead should have been doing everything it could to bring it down. “Nothing proves the failure of Marxism more than the Soviet Union’s inability to produce weapons for its military ambitions and at the same time provide for their people’s everyday needs,” Reagan said. “Stop doing business with them. Let their system collapse.”

From "Character: Profiles in Presidential Courage" by Chris Wallace. RuggedLand. Used by permission.

Click over to the RuggedLand website for more information on "Character" by Chris Wallace.