Anatoly Dobrynin was the Soviet Union’s Ambassador to the United States for a mere twenty-four years. He arrived in Washington the year of the Cuban missile crisis and left after Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan managed to steer US-Soviet relations away from nuclear danger. Before this major course correction could occur, Washington and Moscow passed through another year of living dangerously in 1983.

The hair-raising events of 1983 included Reagan’s surprise announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the deployment of US cruise and ballistic missiles in Europe that the Kremlin viewed as pre-emptive strike weapons, the Soviet walk-out from nuclear negotiations, the shoot-down of a Korean airliner, games of chicken by U.S. submarines and maritime patrol aircraft, heated rhetoric by President Reagan, and a NATO command-post exercise nicknamed Able Archer that paranoid Kremlin officials viewed as a dress rehearsal for the real thing.

Taken together, these developments were still not as anxiety-provoking as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but they were serious enough for Soviet intelligence operatives to be tasked with checking out blood banks in the United States and the number of lights on in the wee hours at the Pentagon and State Department. What made matters worse was the tunnel vision of leading Soviet analysts in the U.S. Intelligence Community who had difficulty distinguishing between aggressive and paranoid behavior emanating from the Soviet Union.

Dobrynin’s long tenure made him an essential go-between, helping both capitals understand each other. His memoirs, published in English as In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents (1995), offers insights into the last US-Soviet Year of Living Dangerously, thirty years ago, and the shift from confrontation to cooperative nuclear risk reduction. Here’s a sampler, picking up Dobrynin’s narrative on May 12, 1983, shortly after President Reagan delivered two speeches in March 1983, one pronouncing the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” the other unveiling the SDI:

Gromyko, Ustinov and Andropov sent the Politburo a memorandum vividly illustrating the real feelings of the core of the Kremlin towards Reagan’s proposals and his presidency. It angrily accused him of creating ‘a propaganda cover-up for the aggressive militarist policy of the United States’ and trying to break the détente agreements of nuclear parity. The speech as a whole, they said, ‘is saturated with gross, unadulterated hostility toward the Soviet Union…’

 

On September 29 [1983], Pravda published a statement by [Soviet General Secretary] Andropov sharply criticizing Reagan’s policies on nuclear arms in Europe and attacking the administration’s anti-Soviet campaign following the shooting down of the Korean airliner. The key phrase was that ‘if anyone ever had any illusions about the possibility of an evolution to the better in the policy of the present administration, these illusions are completely dispelled now.’ The word ‘completely’ was emphasized. The Soviet leadership had collectively arrived at the conclusion that any agreement with Reagan was impossible…”

 

The impact of Reagan’s hard-line policy on the internal debates in the Kremlin and on the evolution of the Soviet leadership was exactly the opposite from the one intended by Washington. It strengthened those in the Politburo, the Central Committee, and the security apparatus who had been pressing for a mirror-image of Reagan’s own policy. Ronald Reagan managed to create a solid front of hostility among our leaders…

 

It is now clear that the turn began during the presidential election year of 1984… [Secretary of State George] Shultz showed me an advance draft of a speech Reagan was making on Soviet-American relations on January 16..,. Reagan’s message had a new twist and a new tone: now that the economic and military might of the United States had revived and its alliance with Europe had been consolidated, the administration was prepared to start settling its differences with the Soviet Union, and the year 1984 was proclaimed one of opportunities for peace.

There are plenty of books narrating how the Reagan administration shifted gears with Moscow after the President’s re-election. These books mostly focus on internecine warfare between dealers and squeezers within the Reagan administration and on the high political theater of US-Soviet negotiations. In my view, these books do not adequately explain what President Reagan was thinking. His memoirs and papers have been published, but they are not all that clarifying. An accomplished biographer, Edmund Morris, was granted unprecedented access to Reagan, and he, too, was flummoxed trying to figure out what made the man tick. He had to resort to a semi-fictionalized account, Dutch (2000), to try to get inside Reagan’s head.

I’ve speculated in an earlier post [“The Turn,” 9/29/09, available in Rummaging in Shoeboxes, (2011)] about whether the President’s belated understanding of how dangerous the events of 1983 were — particularly those surrounding Able Archer, as recounted to him via British intelligence by a Soviet double agent, Oleg Gordievsky – might have played a role in the timing of this shift. Or perhaps the answer is far simpler: that an anti-nuclear president about to be re-elected wanted to do something hugely consequential in a second term. It’s odd that with everything written about President Reagan, we still don’t really have a good understanding of his thinking. The Great Communicator was also the Great Sphinx.