“A nuclear priesthood gave order to the earth after World War II. It derived its authority from a truth: not since Nagasaki had one country ever used a nuclear weapon against another.” 

There’s unnerving relevance to Marc Ambinder’s suspenseful, recently published book “The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983.” The scare in question was a five-day NATO military exercise, codenamed Able Archer 83, in the year when Reagan’s “evil empire” speech magnified escalating distrust and paranoia between the US and the Soviet Union. We edged so close to accidental nuclear conflict, and the surrounding intelligence failure was deemed so complete, that the CIA now cites it when teaching analysts how “not to fall into the brain trap of assuming that their reality is a mirror image of their adversaries’.” 

Was it despite or because of our military might that we almost immolated millions of people? During an interview Ambinder says his “intellectual goal” for “The Brink,” his third book, was to solve the mystery: “How is it possible that the two superpowers might have accidentally blundered their way into a nuclear conflict in 1983 without realizing it or wanting it? How does that even work, given all we’ve been through now about mutually assured destruction and nuclear deterrence?”

An adjunct journalism professor at USC, Ambinder has covered national security and politics for the Atlantic, Defense One, GQ, National Journal, USA Today and The Week. He interviewed more than 100 people for “The Brink,” including “eight direct participants in Able Archer 83.” What emerges is a complicated portrait of systems within systems, and political and military brinksmanship painstakingly established within the context of contemporaneous events. The depth of research is almost overwhelming (it helps to bring patience with acronyms), and a few moments stretch credulity, such as a contention that Reagan “snuck down” to the White House Situation Room.

But in showing, for instance, how East Germany’s feared Stasi selectively withheld information from Russia’s KGB, the amply footnoted book illustrates not only the vital importance of human intelligence sources, but also how politicization of intelligence undermines national security. Presidential leadership issues, thrown into stark relief when the vulnerabilities of communication systems governing nuclear deployment are exposed by another secret war game, are further underscored by the epilogue. President Trump, Ambinder writes, could give a retaliatory launch order and see it fully carried out within 15 to 20 minutes — and “there is no rule that requires the president to talk to anyone before authenticating his identity with the military and ordering a launch.”

In conversation Ambinder rings an urgent alarm while sounding cautiously hopeful: “There are really significant symbolic and practical steps that we can take in the near term that would reduce the threat the entire world faces.” But the parallels between present circumstances and those surrounding Able Archer 83 “are not just striking,” he says. “They’re frankly horrifying.”

PW: It’s sobering to read “The Brink” when its references to “diplomacy on the shelf” and a president’s “apocalyptic rhetoric” strongly parallel our present political situation, and our president and certain advisers seemingly endorse the notion of containable or survivable nuclear conflict.

AMBINDER: The metaphor we always hear is the president has his finger on the nuclear trigger, but the president is actually the safety catch. The system is designed to lead toward this huge brinksmanship; it’s designed to turn every misunderstanding or every false intelligence clue into the worst-case scenario. So it really does take a president and an intelligence system that’s very attentive to what the other side is doing to prevent potentially catastrophic misunderstanding.

That is resoundingly clear

I didn’t buy into the caricature that Reagan wasn’t intelligent but I did buy the caricature, perhaps, that he wasn’t curious or that he didn’t think that he had a lot to learn — and I found the opposite was the case. His curiosity was in his insistence on learning more about the Soviet Union [and] why they might fear a first nuclear strike by the United States; cabinet meetings, letters, and conversations with people, trying to put himself in the shoes of Soviet leaders and people throughout this period, encouraged his impulse toward diplomacy. He doesn’t get enough credit for this intellectual curiosity. In some ways it’s critical to the situation in general resolving as it did. A couple months later when he started reading the intelligence that the Soviets had reacted really unusually to this exercise, it was Reagan who pressed his team for actions that would reduce tension and significantly increase diplomatic contact. So Reagan’s instincts and humility — not a quality always associated with him — in realizing he didn’t fully understand the Soviet Union were essential characteristics of his political leadership.

In different phrasing, you describe humility as probably the most powerful counterbalance against war.

It was. That’s a good way of putting it. There are different schools of writing history and many schools emphasize structural factors at the expense of strong personalities. But in this case you see direct evidence that personality and character really made a difference. That doesn’t mean it always does, but were Reagan not endowed with that curiosity, and if he had a different set of characteristics or inclinations — and frankly, if he had a different set of beliefs about nuclear war — we could have escalated to a point where, if not a nuclear conflict, we could have been in a low-grade conventional war with the Soviet Union that would have cost the lives of tens of thousands of people. It was really that tense.

Quieter revelations concern the pivotal role of spies like Jeffrey Carney, Oleg Gordievsky, Rainer Rupp and John Walker. Has that information only recently been declassified?

A lot of that information is new, and a lot of it is newly synthesized [from] fragments of recordings and declassified documents [and] secondary literature. … On both sides, spies at critical moments told the truth to their spymasters, essentially. Gordievsky repeatedly warned the British that American aggression was triggering the Soviets in a way that could lead to nuclear war … it changed policy. You can make a strong case that, putting aside ideology and the nobility of spy craft, people like Rupp and Gordievsky are heroes of the story because they told the truth when it was inconvenient for them to do so, and they did so in ways that allowed policy makers, once they received the information, to ratchet down tension. … Being able to put all that together and show the linkage between the way information would percolate up the chain and how it might be interpreted or misinterpreted was the hardest but also the coolest part of writing the book. You got to see in real time how individuals reacted to intelligence.

Did any of the experts or Able Archer participants you interviewed single out particular warning signs to watch for or parallels with current relations between the US and other nuclear powers?

Virtually everyone I talked to on all sides — a lot of them Republicans who served in the Reagan administration, conservative to the core — are horrified and afraid. Not just because of the decision-making aspect of it, but because they also know the nuclear command that controls the system itself is very fragile, and is liable to be gamed and is susceptible to dysfunction, still, even as technologies have changed. A lot of “there but for the grace of God go I” comments percolate out. It’s scary. It really was the proverbial orange-haired elephant in the room. … Voters, when they are talking to politicians running for Congress or the presidential level, need to ask very specific questions: ‘If China attacked Taiwan, and the US was obligated by treaty to respond, and the US’ primary means of responding would be attack with a nuclear weapon — what would you do?’

You write that, with the exception of Eisenhower and Carter, “presidents were generally ignorant about the actual mechanics of waging a nuclear war.” Did the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama participate in coordinated nuclear exercises like Ivy League 82?

They went through the exercise, but their interest wasn’t in learning about the mechanics. I can say this about Obama: One of Obama’s biggest legacies is the START treaty with Russia, an incredibly important treaty that obviously allows the US to understand and verify what Russians are doing with their nuclear weapons and provides a framework for all kinds of diplomacy. But Obama, in order to get that treaty, had to give something up. To get votes from Republicans, he worked with Sen. John Kyle, who’s sort of a nuclear hawk in the Senate, and agreed to start funding what would amount to a $300 billion, 20-year nuclear modernization project. That means that all of the nuclear weapons and nuclear infrastructure we have is getting orders of magnitude better — the totality of our weapons, the precision, our targeting, our ability to use them for more things increases by orders of magnitude. In exchange, we keep a few less of them at the ready. It’s a hard bargain to strike. If your nuclear weapons are five times more deadly, and you have 30 fewer of them at the ready, are you really gaining that much? I know it’s something that weighs on Obama’s mind, and it’s something he’s going to write about in his book, and it’s something that concerns him now. I say this not to criticize Obama; I can’t imagine, if there’s ever a nuclear conflict, wanting a president with a different temperament than Obama — he has the perfect temperament. But even as committed to nuclear disarmament as Obama was, he just didn’t have the bandwidth to take the doctrine and these issues to the level where they need to be in order to really make the world safe. It’s not that he didn’t participate in the drills; he did. It’s just that there a million things going on.

Even more disturbing in some ways is cyberwarfare, not least because our infrastructure and systems have been compromised by foreign hackers, and because that mistaken “ballistic missile warning” in Hawaii this year should been a wakeup call but has already been forgotten.

Right. I can’t imagine how terrifying that would have been, in the shoes of someone who was told they have an hour to live. You trust your government. I get pretty sensitive about some of this stuff, but I was sobbing that day. This should not happen, especially now that we’ve had nuclear weapons for more than 55 years. It just shows to me the inattention that we pay to how information is transmitted and how vulnerable our information systems are.

Is our digital communications network more secure than it was in ’83?

No. Parts of it are a lot more secure. But the technology that could be used to break into it and hack it has also improved over time. … I will say the one large improvement since this period has been the safety of the weapons themselves inside the US and probably the Soviet Union. If you were to give me a mated nuclear warhead right now, even with 10 tons of explosives around it, I could not make it go off. These weapons now are extremely hard to accidentally detonate, which is a good thing. Now, what is not a good thing is that Pakistan has 125 of these weapons, and Pakistan does not have that technology. Pakistan likes to leave their weapons around so the United States will not figure out where they’re hiding them, so they move them around on pickup trucks, and the US doesn’t really know exactly what mechanisms are on those weapons. The bombs aren’t necessarily mated to the warheads, but we don’t really know how fragile the bombs are and how they go off. The US has some intelligence to suggest that Pakistan fairly deliberately keeps the bombs close to the warheads and doesn’t have the environmental sensors built in that the US has. There’s a lot that we don’t know. So I would be worried about a bomb accidentally going off in Pakistan. Let’s say it goes off near the border of India; suddenly Indian troops are victims of a Pakistani nuclear bomb and there’s an accidental nuclear conflict in Pakistan and India.

And their situation’s already tense because of Kashmir.

Right. I think the most significant positive change has been the persistence of nuclear arms treaties between the US and the Soviet Union, which really do allow both sides to keep tabs on what other side is doing and to see if the other side is breaking the treaty and developing technology. … One thing that Reagan realized is that the president of the United States is the one who has power to make significant decisions about what happens with our nuclear arms not just in terms of doctrine, but in terms of technology, decision making, and the number and quality of weapons. It’s a presidential leadership question, and something we need to hold politicians accountable for. What’s happening right now makes that even more urgent.

In the unlikely event that Donald Trump ever reads this book, what lesson do you want him to take away from it, first and foremost?

[Pause] For him in particular, if he ever feels compelled to open that briefcase, the nuclear football, to consult and talk to as many people as possible, and not just his own counsel. I don’t think he’d actually listen to that advice. But based on him, where his cognitive deficits are in this area, if I could force him to do something, it would be to consult widely if he ever thought he was on the verge of making that decision. … I don’t want any president’s brain alone to make that decision.

Marc Ambinder discusses and signs “The Brink” at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 7-8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29; free admission. Info: (626) 449-5320. marcambinder.com, vromansbookstore.com