Fear, Loathing, and Cracks in Reagan’s Mirror Images: Able Archer 83 and an American First Step toward Rapprochement in the Cold War


  • Author’s Note : This paper is a revised version of a similarly titled paper prepared for delivery at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, San Francisco, California, March 2008. The author thanks the editors and anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions and thanks Alexandra Baldi, Dave Costello, Martin Edwards, Tom Evans, Tino Galizio, Denise Horn, Jane Judge, Mike Haselswerdt, Ami Lake, Julia Lavarnway, Jack Levy, Emily Meierding, Dan Morey, Justine Price, and Ed Rhodes for their encouragement and feedback on earlier drafts.


Investigation into an often-overlooked Cold War episode reveals a tipping point in the Reagan administration’s approach to the Soviet Union. In November 1983, NATO military exercise “Able Archer 83” reportedly touched off a crisis atmosphere among Soviet officials who feared a surprise nuclear attack. Intelligence reports about the war scare startled US President Ronald Reagan, altering his understanding of Soviet threat perceptions and prompting him to embrace his moderate advisers’ recommendations that the administration take a more conciliatory approach toward the country Reagan had earlier labeled the “evil empire.” By highlighting Soviet fears of the United States, intelligence stemming from Able Archer 83 cracked Reagan’s mirror images and catalyzed a policy shift from hostile confrontation toward cautious cooperation. The case study identifies facilitating conditions for the shift and yields counterintuitive insights relating to international crises, perception and misperception, and the domestic politics of rivalry.