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Special Report - The nuclear war scare of 1983: how serious was it?

By Paul Dibb

Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union and the United States stood on the brink of nuclear war. The Communist Party leadership in Moscow was convinced that Washington was about to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike, which would require a massive nuclear response.

Like most disasters, this one would have resulted from a confluence of errors and misperceptions. In this case it was the profound distrust between the two sides, a sequence of preliminary events that included the shooting down of the airliner, and—perhaps most importantly—an intelligence failure on the behalf of the US. That such a situation could come about after three decades of Cold War, with all the elaborate mechanisms that had been hammered out over the years, is sobering.

It’s worth understanding what happened—and what could have been done to avoid it—when we contemplate the growing strategic competition between the nuclear-armed US and China in our region today. The serious message to be taken from this paper is that we shouldn’t be complacent when it comes to contemplating the risk of nuclear weapons being used one day.