Cast your mind back to 1983 when the cold war was heating up. Then President Ronald Reagan carried a cavalier attitude against the Soviet Union, calling them “evil” such as this speech from March 8 1983:
In your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
The bold was added by this author. Rather than tact or diplomacy Reagan had taken policy into a fuzzy metaphysical world of good versus evil.
A new military policy was introduced of Psychological Operations (PSYOP) on an extreme scale later that year. Just to fuck with the Soviets the US Air Force and Navy would enter and exit Soviet space. These cocky moves really messed with Soviet officials, then they did something atrocious and followed it up with poor diplomacy.
In the Soviet Union, similar brinksmanship hijinks were discussed. In May, 1981 General Secretary Leonid Brezhniv and head of KGB Yuri Andropov boldly busted into a closed room session and announced the United States was plotting their destruction as they spoke. High time to figure out what to do and get those capitalist bastards.
Thus, Operation RYAN (Ракетное Ядерное Нападение) which translates to the utilitarian name of Operation “Nuclear Missile Attack” was born. This was the largest and most ambitious intelligence gathering operation in Soviet history.
In September 1 1983 after months of mindfucks from PSYOP by the US military, a civilian aircraft Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down. Near the Sea of Japan by Soviet interceptors for entering ‘general’ Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers were killed (hopefully painlessly, but I imagine death in the sky horrendous) including active congressman Larry McDonald. Initially General Secretary Yuri Andropov (former KGB head until 1982 who started Operation RYAN) denied any activity with the downed craft. This was against advice of the Foreign Ministry on the grounds it would be difficult to find the craft. No apology and no acknowledgment. Andropov was in poor health and as a result that may have clouded his judgment to pursue a bullshit stupid PR move of denying and then accepting with a shrug killing 269 innocent people.
A few months prior Reagan had amassed the largest collection of weapons in peacetime US history. Including Pershing II missiles and a proposed batshit crazy idea for shooting down missiles in space. For the Soviets the fallout and obvious ill relations of Flight 007 as well as the US escalates meant serious fucking business.
During this time uneasy autumn period NATO began preparations for a nuclear war ‘dry run’ called Able Archer. This was an exercise that would happen later that autumn but the preparations sent alarms to anyone with sense in Soviet intelligence. The Soviet Union fucked up with Flight 007 and for years the US had been mindfucking them. Now this exercise which unknown to Soviet intelligence was just an exercise seemed like a preemptive strike by NATO.
Anything could have happened. With paranoid Soviet Union all but certain the US would attack and Andropov at the helm something did.
25 days after the downing of Flight 007 on September 26, 1983 Soviet Air Defence Force lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov replaced another colonel at an early warning base.
On that irregular shift for Petrov something irregular happened: the computer indicated four nuclear missiles headed for the Soviet Union.
Petrov’s orders were to notify his superiors in this event if there was an attack. A decision would be made and then the Soviet missile system would throw all of its might against NATO nations, specifically the United States.
Four missiles didn’t make sense to Petrov as a nuclear attack would be an all out strike. There would little time for retaliation. Petrov decided it must be a computer error and did not inform his supervisors or get anyone involved that would press the button. He just watched tensely and waited.
Fortunately for all of us, he was right. Otherwise we would be scavenging canned food and fighting armed barbarian gangs led by Gary Busey. Or more likely be dead.
Allegedly, Petrov was first heralded as a hero who averted nuclear war but then scolded for not alerting his superiors. He was not formally punished or charged but his military career was cut short leaving him to spend the rest of his life as a pensioner.
That close call on September 26, 1983 was largely unknown in the West until after the Soviet Union collapsed. What changed Reagan’s attitude, deeply depressed him, and led to a new policy in nuclear deterrence was a science fiction TV movie The Day After.
The film– which cast included John Lithgow, Wayne Knight, and Steve Guttenberg– was set after a schism between NATO and Soviet powers led to a nuclear war leaving most of the United States in dire straits. Set in Kansas City, it deals with the impact of radiation sickness, infrastructure destruction, and lawless gangs. The fictional President was even originally portrayed as a voice actor mimicking Reagan.
For a TV movie its surprisingly good. It even haunts me today: I will never look at a nuclear blast as that boy did, the radiation scarred farmers furious they have to skim off top soil scare me, the President casually saying he is still in Canada angers me, and John Lithgow of all people quoting Einstein that World War IV would be fought with rocks has stuck with me since I saw it as a kid.
In 1986 Reagan signed Intermediate Range Weapons Agreement at Reykjavik with Gorbachev. As a right wing politician, this contrasted Reagan’s 1983 era of PSYOPS, arms buildup, and even according to memos what an acceptable loss for casualties is in nuclear war. Reagan telegrammed the film’s director Nicholas Meyer saying: “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.”
Damn. Pretty good for a TV movie, most directors cannot even dream of influencing such changes. Reagan, the B-movie Hollywood star, backed down from his policies that could have destroyed the entire world. The same man who quoted Star Wars as an insult against the Soviet Union. All because of a B-movie/TV-movie. Not bad all, for a TV movie.