A few weeks ago, I participated in a fascinating panel at the Kennedy Library with Ken Adelman, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under Reagan. Afterwards, we got in an argument about whether the Soviet Union had really been afraid that the Reagan Administration was going to launch a first strike during 1981-1983, years that I have argued were the most dangerous of the Cold War.
I began by pointing to the numerous interviews given by former Soviet officials who point to those years as the ones in which they most feared an American strike. When I went to Moscow, reporting for the book, at least a half dozen former top Soviet officials all told me the same thing. Adelman, a charming man and a terrific debater, countered that this is just talk. And, if you look at what the Soviets did, there’s less evidence that they were afraid of us. After all, he argued, they never dispersed their bombers, nor did they increase the number of submarines they had at sea. If truly afraid, they would have done both, in order to better counter an American strike.
I countered that they did increase their submarine dispersal; and, while I don’t know for sure about the bombers, they were such a small part of the Soviet arsenal that I wouldn’t be surprised if they hadn’t done so. I also pointed to Project Ryan, the massive Soviet spying effort initiated in those years to garner clues of a potential American strike; the creation of the Dead Hand system for semi-automatic retaliation in the event of an American strike; and the huge underground bunker, called Grot, built in the Urals during those years. Adelman remained unpersuaded.
I’m going to see him this afternoon though, and I hope to continue the argument and to report back more.