I grew up during a scary time. My first political memories are of the Iran hostage crisis, sitting in long gas lines, and seeing glimpses of news reports about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There was a palpable sense of American decline (the recession of 1981 and 1982 was brutal), and a deep fear that the escalating Cold War could grow hot, which would likely have meant mass death and the end of civilization as we knew it.
If I had to peg the year of peak anxiety, it would be 1983. In September, a Soviet fighter shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a passenger jet carrying 269 passengers and crew, including an American congressman. In November, ABC aired The Day After, a movie that depicted a sudden Soviet nuclear strike. Everyone watched it. I can still remember the hushed halls at school the next day.
Watch it now, and you can’t get past the 1980s special effects. But if you watched it then, it felt real. And what we didn’t know in November 1983 was that mere days before, during NATO’s Operation Able Archer ‘83, the Soviets had placed their nuclear forces on high alert.