Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink


By Taylor Downing

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A riveting, real-life thriller about 1983–the year tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union nearly brought the world to the point of nuclear Armageddon

The year 1983 was an extremely dangerous one–more dangerous than 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the United States, President Reagan vastly increased defense spending, described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and launched the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative to shield the country from incoming missiles. Seeing all this, Yuri Andropov, the paranoid Soviet leader, became convinced that the US really meant to attack the Soviet Union and he put the KGB on high alert, looking for signs of an imminent nuclear attack.

When a Soviet plane shot down a Korean civilian jet, Reagan described it as “a crime against humanity.” And Moscow grew increasingly concerned about America’s language and behavior. Would they attack? The temperature rose fast. In November the West launched a wargame exercise, codenamed “Abel Archer,” that looked to the Soviets like the real thing. With Andropov’s finger inching ever closer to the nuclear button, the world was truly on the brink.

This is an extraordinary and largely unknown Cold War story of spies and double agents, of missiles being readied, intelligence failures, misunderstandings, and the panic of world leaders. With access to hundreds of astonishing new documents, Taylor Downing tells for the first time the gripping but true story of how near the world came to nuclear war in 1983.


List of Maps

1: The Iron Curtain

2: The Soviet Far East

3: The flight path of KAL 007



At noon on 20 January 1981, after being sworn in by Chief Justice Warren, watched adoringly by his wife Nancy, Ronald Reagan offered Americans a new start. Unlike all previous Presidents who had sworn the oath of office behind the Capitol overlooking a parking lot in the shade, the 40th incumbent performed his inauguration on the front steps of the grand building looking out towards the Mall, the tall Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. As the new President began to speak, the grey clouds parted and the winter sun shone down on the gathering on the west side of the Capitol. Reagan promised to improve the economy, where inflation was running at 18 per cent. He said he would run down the massive national deficit and by cutting taxes he would ‘lighten our punitive tax burden’. He said he would reduce the scale of central government, proclaiming in a memorable phrase that ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem’. Striking the populist chord that had helped get him elected, he said he would govern for everyone, for the ‘professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies and truck drivers’, to create ‘a strong, prosperous America at peace with itself and the world’. He promised that America would have a ‘greater strength throughout the world’ and would again become ‘a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom’. It was a simple vision, as though out of a Hollywood movie in which the world was divided between good guys and baddies. And he ended with a tale about a soldier who died on the Western Front in the First World War. On his body it was said that a pledge was found declaring ‘I will work. I will save. I will sacrifice. I will endure. I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.’1 It was a classic Reagan moment in a classic Reagan speech, heavy on emotional rhetoric, full of optimism, light on substance and detail.

Just forty minutes later, the inauguration was upstaged by an event that moved Americans even more. An Algerian Airways Boeing 727 airliner took off from Tehran airport loaded with the fifty-two hostages who had been held for 444 days. It had been a long and humiliating crisis for America. The outgoing President Jimmy Carter and his team had patiently negotiated the release of these American hostages through Algerian intermediaries and had promised to return frozen Iranian assets to a special account in the Bank of England. But as a final rebuff, the Iranian authorities had kept the hostages waiting at the airport until the inauguration was over. The first announcement made by the newly installed National Security Advisor, Richard Allen, was of their release. And the glory fell to the new President. The sun truly was shining on Ronald Reagan that day.

Reagan had been born in 1911 into a neighbourly Midwestern farming community in Illinois. He grew to maturity in Dixon (pop. 8191) in small-town middle America: a few hundred houses along the banks of the Rock river bounded by dairy farms that spread into open country. Reagan’s father, Jack, of Irish Catholic stock, was a shoe salesman with the gift of the gab. He was also an occasional heavy drinker who collapsed unconscious in front of his young son more than once. His mother, Nelle, was of Scottish extraction, and a year before the future President was born she joined an evangelical Christian sect called the Disciples of Christ into which she threw herself heart and soul. The family never owned the houses they lived in and many of Jack’s jobs failed, leaving them struggling to make ends meet, although they never descended to soup-kitchen poverty. Nevertheless, Ronald, known as ‘Dutch’, grew into a tall, handsome and glamorous teenager, quite a star in Dixon in the 1920s, a good sportsman and a budding actor who was blessed with a photographic memory. Despite the hardships of his youth, he had an optimistic outlook, a strong Christian faith, enjoyed watching westerns and loved to tell stories from the adventure books he devoured, usually seeing in them a morality tale in which good always triumphed over evil.

David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

At his inauguration Ronald Reagan was a few weeks off his seventieth birthday but looked energetic and younger than his years.

After four years at Eureka College studying economics, he became a sports reporter in the booming world of radio. He had a great skill for vividly describing live sporting events like a baseball game even if he was not present, which was usually the case. Moving to Des Moines, the capital of and biggest city in Iowa, he became a radio celebrity, and this early fame encouraged him to take his next big step. In February 1937 he went to Hollywood. His good looks and relaxed, wholesome character impressed Jack Warner, who offered him a contract at Warner Brothers. He took his new career very seriously and always turned up on set on time and word perfect. Over the next few years he appeared in more than twenty films, few of which made much of an impact and most of which were described as B-movies. They were part of the huge output of the Hollywood studios which with a small army of contracted performers and technicians made movies as if on a factory production line. They were shot in about three weeks, usually ran for no more than an hour, and provided a curtain-raiser for the major ‘A’ feature. They also gave the studios the opportunity to try out fresh talent and to look for new stars.

In 1940, Reagan began to star in a set of films that took him into the premier league of movie stars.2 In that same year he married actress Jane Wyman. Despite the fact that Reagan was nearly thirty and Wyman had been married twice before, the fan magazines described them as the Perfect All American Couple–two ordinary kids who had fallen in love. And when the war split them up it all seemed to play into the narrative. But Ronnie did not go off to fight in Europe or the Pacific. Instead he served with the 1st Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps at Culver City, making training films. He returned home most weekends. During the war he also joined the board of the Screen Actors Guild and spent an increasing amount of time working on Guild business.

Until the end of the war, Reagan was a convinced Democrat and an enthusiastic supporter of President Roosevelt. In 1945 he spoke against the use of the atom bomb and was hostile to the Ku Klux Klan. But in the post-war years Reagan realigned himself politically. The first of the Red Scares hit Hollywood in 1946 and Reagan began to spot communist sympathisers everywhere. He later wrote, ‘The Communist Plan for Hollywood was remarkably simple. It was merely to take over the motion picture business… for a grand worldwide propaganda base. In those days… American films dominated 95 per cent of the world’s movie screens. We had a weekly audience of 500,000,000 souls. Takeover of this enormous plant and its gradual transformation into a Communist gristmill was a grandiose idea.’3 Elsewhere he wrote, ‘Joseph Stalin had set out to make Hollywood an instrument of propaganda for his program of Soviet expansionism aimed at communizing the world.’4

The Second World War alliance between the United States, its allies and the Soviet Union fell apart very quickly in those post-war years. Old fears emerged in a new form as it seemed that Stalin sought to seize control of eastern Europe and, in Churchill’s famous phrase, an ‘Iron Curtain’ descended across Europe. In the US, the FBI was the dominant agency in domestic intelligence and under its legendary conservative director J. Edgar Hoover it took the lead role in tracking down what it perceived to be the communist menace. It claimed to have found plots to infiltrate many aspects of American life and government. Hoover gathered a mass of evidence and leaked some of it to sympathetic Congressmen, knowing that it would not stand up in a court of law but that it would help to feed a growing hysteria about a Red Threat to the US. In April 1947 Reagan met FBI agents and gave them a list of names he believed were communists. Later he became an informer for the FBI, codenamed T-10. And in the same year he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild.

In October 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to take evidence on the communist threat to Hollywood. In public hearings, Reagan presented a moderate face and claimed that Hollywood in general and the Screen Actors Guild in particular could cope with the issue and purge itself of any communist agents. Behind the scenes he was passing on names to the FBI. Most of the writers, directors and actors subpoenaed to appear before HUAC gave evidence but a small number refused to answer questions about their political affiliations and claimed immunity under the First Amendment. A group of producers, directors and writers known as the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress and given prison sentences of six months to a year. When they came out of jail the Hollywood studios refused to employ any of them–the first of several hundred figures who would be blacklisted over the coming years. Some of those listed never worked again. Others fled to Europe to work. Some could only get work by using pseudonyms. Reagan did nothing to help rehabilitate these film-makers and publicly even denied the existence of the blacklists.5

All of this was taking place while Reagan himself had to confront some major personal changes. Although he appeared in several movies he had difficulty in finding the parts he wanted to play. A new mood of realism was sweeping Hollywood, whose films were now darker than they had been pre-war. He did not want to appear in the more serious and challenging films of the day, unlike his wife Jane Wyman, who embraced several tough roles and won an Oscar for one performance, as a deaf mute who is raped.6 Ronnie wanted to play the action adventure hero in pure entertainment movies but he was more often cast as the nice guy who stood up for the just cause. None of his films in these years was a box office success, and one of them has been listed among the fifty worst of all time.7 In 1948 he and Wyman divorced–she sued him on the grounds of mental cruelty for not taking her views and thoughts seriously. All of this pushed him to take on a more political role. He became well known as an anti-communist crusader and devoted more time to the Screen Actors Guild. When in 1952 he married Nancy Davis, this seemed to encourage the trajectory. She had been an aspiring actress when they met but now devoted herself to supporting her husband and pushing him to be ever more ambitious. It was the part of dutiful and adoring wife that she now wanted to play, and she continued in this role, creating a truly close and loving relationship with her spouse, for the rest of her life.

By 1954 Reagan looked pretty washed up. He had broken his contract with Warner Brothers but had not found the parts he wanted elsewhere. In one notorious and frequently remembered film he was even upstaged by a chimpanzee.8 He was short of money and his acting career looked as though it was over. Then salvation came in the form of a contract from General Electric to host a television revue on CBS. In addition, when the show was not broadcasting he was required to spend sixteen weeks each year making public relations tours of GE plants across the country. It was a time when the big corporations spent considerable sums to sell their new products and promote the consumerist American Dream. General Electric’s own slogan was ‘Progress is our most important product’.9 From 1954 to 1962 Reagan spent the equivalent of two years on the road visiting 139 GE plants and addressing a quarter of a million of its employees.10 The onscreen work enabled him to become a confident performer in the new medium of television and one of the most recognised faces in America. And the talking engagements helped to forge him into a fine speech-maker. The speeches were usually of a type, including much corporate praise for GE and its products interspersed with jokes, stories and warnings about the threat from communism. Each one usually ended with a quip. He also found that sounding off against the federal bureaucracy was a good way to get the audience cheering.11 Reagan was slowly emerging as a prominent spokesman for the conservative right wing, deeply imbued with a belief in individualism and free markets styled as a passionate support for freedom, and deeply hostile to communism and big government and what he presented as creeping socialism, especially in the form of high taxes and health care.

So for eight years GE helped Reagan to hone his skills and spread his reputation across the country. In the 1964 presidential election he supported the hard-right Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. But Goldwater was too extreme to win the mass vote, and after one moving campaign speech by Reagan many senior Republicans began to ask if the ex-actor would not have been a better candidate. President Johnson was re-elected in a landslide and began his Great Society reforms, almost as significant as FDR’s New Deal thirty years before, although they ran out of steam and money against the backdrop of an escalating war in Vietnam.

Reagan was persuaded by some powerful friends to stand for Governor of California in 1966. Many believed he had little chance in a state where registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by three to two. But with the help of a PR team, Reagan proved to be a proficient and appealing candidate. He came across well in homely television commercials and cast himself in the populist mould as the ‘citizen-politician’ who would bring new standards to government. But he was always short on detailed policy. When asked by a journalist what sort of governor he would be, he replied, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never played the part of governor.’12 When his opponent, Democrat Governor Pat Brown, mocked his lack of experience, Reagan responded, ‘The man who has the job has more experience than anybody. That’s why I’m running.’13 He won with a majority of just under one million votes.

Reagan’s eight years as Governor of California gave him invaluable executive experience. He had a hands-off approach and made it clear that his leadership would rely on Cabinet-style government. He believed in finding good people to run the various departments and that they should formulate detailed policy. He would act like a chairman of the board and set the general direction. On any new subject he asked for a one-page typed summary of the arguments for and against. One member of his team later wrote, ‘Reagan was a macro-manager and sometimes no manager at all.’14 However, he also proved to be no right-wing ideologue but a leader who was willing to compromise. Although having called for a reduction of taxes and a scaling back of government, one of his first actions, in February 1967, was to request nearly one billion dollars in tax increases, the biggest hike in any state taxes at the time. Democrats thought this would undermine his credibility. Reagan answered that he was only solving problems he had inherited from the previous regime. His approval ratings continued to grow.15

He stood for a second term, canvassing again like an outsider ‘citizen-politician’, as though he had not been in charge for the last four years. He won with a majority of about half of what he’d had before. But it was convincing enough, and his second term proved more impressive. He argued that welfare payments had got out of hand, that there was no incentive for the poor to go to work, and asserted that teenage girls got pregnant simply to claim benefits. Then he negotiated a complex welfare bill that simultaneously gave more to the needy while bringing in anti-fraud controls and tightening rules of eligibility. The California welfare budget started to come down and the bill proved a model for many other states over the coming years. And Reagan kept the Californian Republicans united through eight tumultuous years.

By 1974 he had had enough of the role of governor and stood aside, probably with an eye to the presidential race two years later when Nixon would have completed his eight-year term. But Nixon resigned as a consequence of the Watergate scandal before almost certain impeachment, and Vice President Gerald Ford took over. Despite being up against an incumbent, Reagan stood against Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries, coming a close second. But then in the presidential election Ford was defeated by the Democrat candidate Jimmy Carter from Georgia. Reagan now looked favourite for the Republican nomination in 1980, but would America vote for the Grand Old Party that Nixon had discredited? Maybe the Democrats would be in power for eight years, or more?

The flow of events drifted in Reagan’s favour over the next few years. Inflation grew while the economy stagnated with unemployment at 7 per cent by 1980–a new formulation called ‘stagflation’ that seemed to go against the grain of post-war economic orthodoxies. Worse still, America seemed to be losing the Cold War. After the humiliation of withdrawal from Vietnam, that country along with neighbouring Cambodia and Laos fell to the communists. In Africa, Cuban-backed guerrillas had appeared in growing numbers and Angola and Mozambique fell to Soviet-backed regimes. Moscow further expanded its influence in Central America with the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Most humiliating was the loss of the Shah of Iran, a long-term friend of America. For twenty-five years the Shah had led a process of Westernisation in Iran, and in return for major concessions to British and American oil companies received substantial oil revenues. But opposition to his corrupt regime led to his abdication in January 1979 and his replacement by the fundamentalist Islamic cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. The new, strict Islamic republic reversed the process of Westernisation and its leaders denounced the ‘Great Satan’ of America. The greatest insult of all came in November 1979 when militant students seized US embassy personnel in Tehran and took them hostage. An unsuccessful rescue attempt by the military resulted in an accident when a US helicopter crashed into a refuelling aircraft in the desert. It was the ultimate blow. President Carter not only looked weak but as commander-in-chief was blamed for the disaster. All of this gave Reagan an easy opportunity to beat the drum for a revival of American superpower military might.

The Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a think-tank formed of established conservatives and ex-liberals, tried to alert America to what they perceived as a growing Soviet threat. They opposed the Cold War policy of détente that had brought the US and the Soviets closer in a series of cultural and political events culminating in the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975. But in the late seventies the Soviets began to introduce a new generation of SS-20 intermediate missiles and appeared to be going on the offensive in the Third World, supporting a variety of national liberation struggles. The CPD presented the Soviet Union as taking advantage of the US while its guard was down. In its publications it warned of a Soviet ‘drive for dominance’ and a desire for a ‘Communist world order’ for which it had undertaken an ‘unparalleled military build-up’. It predicted that ‘within several years [the Soviets will] achieve strategic superiority over the United States’. Moreover it warned that the Soviets had a different philosophy to the US and that the ‘Soviet nuclear offensive and defensive forces are designed to enable the USSR to fight, survive and win a nuclear war’.16 This claim was based on flimsy evidence of the existence of a Russian civil defence programme with plans to evacuate cities in the event of a nuclear exchange. But it helped to persuade many that the Soviets were limbering up for a fight. The CPD lobbied hard against the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) saying that it was simply a way of appeasing the Soviets. CPD speakers crossed America and toured the television studios to sound the alarm.

In 1979, Reagan joined the executive board of the CPD. He admitted he was not well informed on issues of national security and the CPD influenced many aspects of his developing policy. In his speeches, Reagan picked up several CPD themes and began to warn about increased Soviet military spending. He claimed they had spent $240 billion more than the US on defence during the 1970s. He predicted the 1980s would be ‘one of the most dangerous decades in Western civilisation’. He spoke of the Soviets threatening Iran, the Middle East and East Asia. When on Christmas Day 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they played into his hands. Carter announced a series of trade sanctions, abandoned SALT II and launched a boycott of the Moscow Olympics the following summer. But once again he looked weak. Reagan’s solution was to spend whatever was needed to match the Soviet build-up so the US could once again argue from a position of strength. In many election rallies he repeated the remark ‘We are in an arms race, but only one side is racing.’17 It all sounded very persuasive. Reagan now presented himself as a prominent Cold War warrior. And he seemed to offer a way to make America strong again after nearly a decade of retrenchment following defeat in Vietnam.

Reagan’s principal opponent in the Republican primaries in 1980 was former CIA director and envoy to China George H. W. Bush. He accused Reagan of ‘voodoo economics’ in following the monetarism of Milton Friedman and calling for massive tax cuts. But when Bush was defeated at the party convention in Detroit, both men put previous hostilities aside and Bush joined Reagan as his vice-presidential running mate. The dream ticket helped deliver Texas to the Republicans and bring some foreign policy experience to the table. Uniting most parts of the GOP with the Christian evangelical right, Reagan now chose to fight the 1980 election on the issue of personality and leadership rather than on ideology. The White House, on the other hand, chose to paint Reagan as an ill-informed, empty-headed extremist. But they failed to notice that he had captured the mood of the country. Polls swung one way and then another, but when election day came Reagan won with 51 per cent of the votes cast; Carter took 41 per cent, and independents took the rest. Only half the electorate voted, but Reagan had won convincingly, especially in the south and west where new industries from defence to electronics prospered. Moreover, the Republicans won a majority in the Senate for the first time since 1954 and increased their standing in the House of Representatives.

Very much like Donald Trump on his arrival at the White House three and a half decades later, Reagan presented himself as an outsider coming in to shake up Washington. Across Defense, State, Intelligence and National Security as well as in the Treasury and many other federal departments, the newcomers swept away old ideologies and brought in new political ideas. As one Washington insider put it, ‘For the first time in decades, an incoming President orchestrated a comprehensive battle plan to seize control of a city long believed to be in enemy hands… between November and January [the transition team] deployed their forces for a political blitzkrieg.’18 Alexander Haig, a former four-star general, NATO boss and Chief of Staff to Richard Nixon, was nominated for Secretary of State. Caspar Weinberger, who had worked with Reagan in California, was nominated as Secretary of Defense although he had no background in the defence business. James Baker, who had run Bush’s primary campaign and who knew his way around the corridors of Washington, joined as Chief of Staff. His deputy was Reagan’s long-standing adviser and PR guru Michael Deaver. The additional role Deaver had played since the days of the governorship of California was as a link to Nancy, who was close to her husband in all things and very protective of his interests. Deaver would speak regularly on the phone with the First Lady if she was not happy, sometimes up to a dozen times a day.19 If Nancy did not think Ronnie was getting good advice or if an aide was slipping up, she would make her opinions felt via Deaver. One official who later became a key player in the administration wrote that over the years Deaver ‘evolved into a faithful family retainer’.20 Edwin Meese, another aide who had been with Reagan since 1967, joined the central White House team. Richard Allen, a prominent member of the CPD, was made National Security Advisor. Fifty members of the committee were given senior positions in the new administration. The Reagan team all shared the same broad objectives.

With everything in place, Reagan stepped out on to the western steps of the Capitol on 20 January 1981 to play the biggest role in his life. He was only a couple of weeks off his seventieth birthday and the oldest President ever at inauguration.21 But he was lean and fit, and at six foot one he was still handsome, his hair black not grey and his face still bright not wrinkled. He looked the picture of health, and Americans like their leaders to look good. He had an unquenchable optimism too, along with an alluring smile and an attractive laugh. He had spent decades learning the part, years of travelling the country giving speeches, learning how to amuse but also to move an audience, and most importantly to express the mood of the crowd and to lead them where they might not even have known they wanted to go. He could also make people smile or laugh and was always ready with a quip from a vast supply of tales he seemed to be able to call upon. He had seamlessly moved through the media of the twentieth century, first making his name in radio, then going on to be a film star, and finally learning skilfully to use the art of television. Politically, he had begun as a liberal and a Democrat but for thirty-five years had been moving steadily to the right. He had helped the Republican party revive as a force that brought conservatives with many different outlooks together. He had learned to compromise in power and knew how to negotiate a deal. He was still a divisive figure in that many people thought him a fool with a simplistic world view, nothing better than an actor who read other people’s lines. But he was now on the biggest stage and his performance would help to change the world.

Another transition was to take place the following year in very different circumstances, nearly 5000 miles from Washington on the other side of the Cold War divide.




  • "A gripping and frankly terrifying book on the US-Soviet nuclear confrontation"--Tom Holland, award-winning author of Rubicon and Dynasty
  • "Carefully-researched and absorbing."—Christian Science Monitor
  • "A terrific book that should terrify anyone who reads it. It is a must-read for students of the Cold War and for anyone who thinks nuclear brinkmanship is a productive way to conduct foreign policy."—Washington Independent Review of Books
  • "The most readable version to date of an episode that holds lessons for today."—The Nation

On Sale
Apr 24, 2018
Page Count
400 pages
Da Capo Press

Taylor Downing

About the Author

Taylor Downing is an award-winning television producer and the author of several “vivid and fast-paced” (Financial Times) history books, including Cold War, Spies in the Sky, and Churchill’s War Lab. He has also written for the Observer, the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph, History Today, and Military History Monthly. Downing lives in London.

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