As well as being the successful author of books on 20th century military history, Taylor Downing is an experienced film-maker, winning the 2008 Grierson Award for Best Historical Documentary for his Flashback Television 90-minute drama-documentary feature 1983 – The Brink of the Apocalypse. Ten years on, the tension, drama and immediacy of the film are bolstered by evidence from newly declassified documents and recent interviews from key players who are only now able to speak and Downing has written a book which is both riveting, and horrifying: make no mistake, in the autumn of 1983, the world really was at the brink.
From the beginning of his presidency, Ronald Reagan had started to question the very basis of Cold War thinking: instead of each side seeking to balance nuclear capability, therefore always “deterring” one side from attacking the other, shouldn’t we be thinking about how best to defend our people against attack, he argued. Let’s have a system that will protect us from the other side’s missiles, neutralise them in the air, a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) – which came to be known as Star Wars. All very well, but the new, ailing, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was locked into old Cold War thinking, and saw this SDI as a real and imminent threat so kept his intelligence networks on full alert, collecting evidence of Western troop movements, signals, political meetings, etc, assuming that a nuclear strike could happen at any time.
This sets the scene for 1983, and Downing takes us through the year, month by dangerous month, sometimes hour by hour, such as when he tells the story of the South Korean Airlines Boeing 747, Flight KAL007 from New York to Seoul, via Anchorage, Alaska, which inexplicably flew 300 miles off course and into prohibited Soviet airspace. This happened just as a major US Navy exercise was ending in the Northern Pacific, and the Soviets panicked, thought that the airliner was an American military aircraft, and shot it down. A few weeks later there was a different type of alert when a new Soviet early warning station south of Moscow started picking up signals of missile launches in the United States. Duty officer Stanislav Petrov had his doubts about the system, but he was also puzzled that only three missile launches were being shown, not a mass attack. He did not sound the alarm and as he waited it became clear that none of the other tracking stations were reporting missile launches: what his station’s satellite had picked up were reflections of the sun on high altitude clouds.
If you want to understand what brought about the end of the Cold War, read this book. Downing is authoritative, and his writing is vibrant and compelling with technical and military terminology made easy to follow. He brings to the page his skills and insights as documentary film maker, not just telling us what interviewees have told him. In preparing them for interview on camera, has seen into their eyes, and asked them to repeat answers: he knows them, and draws his readers in, so that we know them too.
The book does have a flaw and it is the Epilogue. After 325 pages exploring a single year we then have 18 pages on the years 1989 till now. You can just hear the publisher asking for an epilogue that will mention the Presidencies of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and flag that we might be at the beginning of a new Cold War. It’s simply not possible to unpack 29 years in so few pages, and the oversimplifications demean the authority of everything that has gone before. But there is a simple solution. Just don’t read the Epilogue.
1983: The World At The Brink, by Taylor Downing, Little, Brown, 391pp, £20