Julie Mcdowall

Fingers on the nuclear button

Reagan’s Star Wars panicked the Soviets into putting their nuclear arsenal on highest alert. But a cool Nato commander refused to react

In 1983, Soviet spies skulked in our midnight streets to check the lights were out.

The Kremlin, convinced the West was planning nuclear war, launched Project RYAN, whereby agents watched for signs of impending attack. One was that lights would burn all night in government buildings, as fiendish mandarins drew up the war plans. It didn’t occur to them that lights might indicate nothing more than cleaners on a late shift. Soviet paranoia was such that they saw menace everywhere, and agents, eager to please Moscow, reinforced this fear. ‘The more alarming the reports, the more the agents were congratulated for their diligence.’ RYAN became self-fulfilling.

In an easy, accessible history of that anxious year, Taylor Downing shows how close we came to nuclear war, and underlines the role played by crowd-pleasing rhetoric and ludicrous paranoia.

However it was not totally ludicrous to stake out government buildings for signs of Armageddon. There was a secret plan to disperse government prior to a nuclear strike, and if spies had observed clusters of civil servants at the assembly points of Whitehall Place and Richmond Terrace then there could have been no clearer sign that the game was afoot.

But you won’t find information about the secret plan here, as this book, although enjoyable, is rather basic. In places it reads like an essay by a fidgety undergraduate trying to pad his word count. We have a map showing us the Iron Curtain, and are given tepid insights, such as the Soviet leaders being ‘deeply worried’ about nuclear war. We tread water with Ronald Reagan’s ‘alluring smile’ and limp Hollywood career; but in paring it back to the essentials we find a clear and useful account of why 1983 almost exploded

Détente started to fade when hawks whispered the US was allowing the Soviets to overtake.

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