The Kremlin’s Really Bad Month: March 1983

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the American Thinker.

It was 25 years ago this month, March 1983, that the Soviet Union went into hysterics, both realizing and arguably beginning the terminal phase in its deadly life cycle.

The Kremlin had been deeply troubled ever since the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in January 1981, a total turnabout from its confident surge in the latter 1970s, when it looked like Moscow was winning the Cold War. The Soviet leadership was taken aback by Reagan’s bravado in his very first press conference, where the new president calmly explained to a stunned Washington press corps that the Soviet leadership had “openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat.” Reagan had left no doubt that Jimmy Carter was out of the White House.

Moscow’s fears only heightened throughout 1981 and 1982, struck by the president’s public projections that communism and the Soviet Union itself were doomed, statements he made repeatedly from the campus of Notre Dame University in May 1981 to Westminster in London in June 1982, to name only two. The Soviets privately fumed over what they suspected Reagan was pursuing in Poland, in Afghanistan, in Nicaragua, and via relationships with the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.

Consequently, the Kremlin already sensed it was at the arc of a crisis going into March 1983. It could not have imagined what was about to happen next, as Reagan that month would issue a devastating rhetorical blow, followed by the disclosure of a major Cold War directive, and then finishing with an announcement of a research program that would terrify the Soviet leadership, ultimately becoming Mikhail Gorbachev’s obsession.

The first of these came on March 8, 1983, when Ronald Reagan proclaimed that there was “sin and evil in the world,” and that he was duty-bound, “by Scripture and the Lord Jesus,” to oppose it with all his might. Among those sins and evils was the “focus of evil in the modern world,” said Reagan-the Soviet Union, which was nothing short of an “Evil Empire.”

Liberals, of course, went nuts, as did the Soviets—but not the Soviets’ captives, who celebrated from inside the gulag, ecstatic that finally the West had a leader willing to speak the truth. Reagan was speaking to cowards in the West in particular, the haughty, the prideful, when he exhorted:

“I urge you to beware the … temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

The Moderates were Alarmed

The moderates inside the Reagan White House were equally alarmed. Nancy Reagan and her close friend Mike Deaver were certain that if Ronnie would simply stop making these Neanderthal comments, the Nobel Committee would come to the door with the Peace Prize for the conservative president. About a week after the speech, Nancy invited to dinner another of her moderate friends, Stu Spencer. The two of them pressed the president, expressing reservations over his abrasive speech. Reagan waved them off: “It is an Evil Empire,” he instructed them. “It’s time to close it down.”

The Evil Empire speech could not have been more high-profile. It was done openly by Reagan for all to hear. The intended audience was the world, and Reagan wanted everyone, everywhere, to hear it—as they did indeed.

That was not the intention with what happened next that March 1983. A week after the Evil Empire speech came something on March 16, 1983 that sent the Soviets into fits. On that date, reporter Robert Toth of the Los Angeles Times broke the scoop of a lifetime, compliments of one of the serial leakers in the Reagan administration:

Toth revealed that two months earlier, in mid-January, President Reagan had secretly signed NSDD-75, a highly classified document, and one of the boldest strokes of the entire Cold War. Written principally by Harvard professor Richard Pipes, with the economic elements developed by Roger Robinson—both operating within Bill Clark’s National Security Council—NSDD-75 dedicated the Reagan administration to nothing short of reversing the Soviet communist empire and even the USSR itself, advocating the end of the Marxist directorship and the launching of political pluralism in the USSR. As Pipes put it, NSDD-75 was “a clear break from the past. [NSDD-75] said our goal was no longer to coexist with the Soviet Union but to change the Soviet system. At its root was the belief that we had it in our power to alter the Soviet system.”

This would be achieved by various external pressures, including covert economic warfare. Among the practitioners of this campaign, beyond Reagan’s NSC, were Bill Casey and his team at the CIA—men like Casey’s special assistant, Herb Meyer.

Neither the Soviets nor the world in general were supposed to know about NSDD-75. They learned about it from the Toth article. This was discovered firsthand by Marc Zimmerman, an unknown legislative aide to then-Rep. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who found himself being pumped for information by a KGB agent in March 1983—a case that soon exploded onto every front page in America. The agent was armed with a copy of the Times article.

Zimmerman found that the Soviet agent (who, of course, did not identify himself as an agent) was “obsessed” with NSDD-75, and understandably so. “He told me, ‘Hey, you know, your government is trying to destabilize the Soviet Union,’” recalls Zimmerman today. “As evidence, he pulled the article from his coat pocket. He was really shaken up by the article. The KGB had their agents all over this.”

Just a week earlier, TASS, the official Soviet news agency, had issued a press release warning that Reagan’s Evil Empire speech had symbolized the reality that it was now “official state policy” for the Reagan team to make its “crusade against communism … the fatal denouement to which Mr. Reagan is nudging the world.” Now, with the disclosure about NSDD-75, articles began running in the Soviet press with titles like “New Directive … Threatens History.”

A piece by Grigori Dadyants in Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya stated, “Directive 75 speaks of changing the Soviet Union’s domestic policy. In other words, the powers that be in Washington are threatening the course of world history, neither more nor less.” The Moscow Domestic Service released two statements on the directive, dubbing the “plan” a “subversive” attempt “to try to influence the internal situation” within the USSR. “[T]he task,” said Moscow, was “to exhaust the Soviet economy … to undermine the socioeconomic system and international position of the Soviet state.” This was quite accurate; finally, there was some truth in the Soviet press.

Even then, the Soviets had seen nothing yet. Their really bad month was about to get worse, as Ronald Reagan was holding a secret that he was about to share with the world on March 23, 1983: “My fellow Americans, tonight we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history,” declared the president that evening in a nationally televised address. He announced his Strategic Defense Initiative, a vision for a space-based missile-defense system.

Coming only two weeks after the Evil Empire speech, and one week after the report on NSDD-75-not to mention other audacious military initiatives underway, from the deployment of the MX Missile to the Pershing IIs-Reagan’s remarks left Moscow shell-shocked. They also stunned his own staff. Four days before the speech, only Bill Clark, Bud McFarlane, John Poindexter, and science advisor George Keyworth knew what was to come.

The Problem with Leaks

That secrecy was necessary: Reagan had a terrible problem with leaks, which had been particularly acute in 1982 and 1983, to the point where he had Bill Clark investigate the matter and even considered employing a polygraph. Clark ensured that only those who needed to know about SDI would know ahead of time. He and Reagan did not want SDI to be sabotaged by an in-house opponent as a lame-brain idea prior to its announcement.

As an example of the internal opposition, Keyworth recalled a Monday meeting in the Oval Office with Secretary of State George Shultz before the Wednesday evening speech. “Shultz called me a lunatic in front of the president,” remembered Keyworth, “and said the implication of this new initiative was that it would destroy the NATO alliance. It would not work … and was the idea of a blooming madman.” Shultz did not realize at that point that he had just called Reagan a madman in front of his top advisers—since the idea was completely Reagan’s.

The Soviets could, however, count on getting some help from their useful idiots in the American left. It took Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) less than 24 hours to lampoon Reagan’s SDI speech as “misleading Red-scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.” The New York Times quickly followed suit, noting in a story a week later that the SDI proposal was “Mr. Reagan’s answer to the film ‘Star Wars.’” White House reporters like Helen Thomas immediately embraced the critics’ new name for Reagan’s initiative, refusing Reagan’s direct appeal to call SDI by its actual name. Here’s one exchange at a press conference:

Thomas: Mr. President, if you are flexible, are you willing to trade off research on “Star Wars” … or are you against any negotiations on “Star Wars”?

Reagan: Well, let me say, what has been called “Star Wars”-and, Helen, I wish whoever coined that expression would take it back again-

Thomas: Well, Strategic Defense-

Reagan: -because it gives a false impression of what it is we’re talking about.

Despite Reagan’s plea, Thomas continued: “May I ask you, then, if ‘Star Wars’-even if you don’t like the term, it’s quite popular….”

The term was popular because reporters used it. Reagan’s request was reasonable: the program’s name was the Strategic Defense Initiative. A supposed unbiased reporter ought to call it by its proper name, not the term of derision used by partisan detractors.

So, before SDI could work its magic in panicking the Soviets and bringing them to the negotiating table, it first had to survive its domestic opponents right here in America. Still, try as they might, the left’s attempt to ridicule SDI failed miserably, as the Soviets took it eminently seriously. There was literally no other issue, in all the subsequent US-Soviet summits, that absorbed Mikhail Gorbachev’s attention as much as SDI. The transcripts of the summits show this unmistakably, and Gorbachev and his aides all attested to the fact.

SDI was “The Silver Bullet”

In the end, SDI was one of the single most influential factors in bringing the Soviets to the negotiating table and ending the Cold War. It was a silver bullet. According to CIA official Herb Meyer,

“The intelligence coming in the morning of March 24—literally hours after the president’s SDI speech—was different from anything we’d seen before. The Soviet Union’s top military officials had understood instantly that President Reagan had found a way to win the Cold War. He had described SDI as ‘a shield over the United States.’ But they understood that it was really a lid over the Soviet Union. It meant their missiles would be worthless.”

Meyer notes that the Soviets understood that even if SDI could not shoot down all of their missiles, it introduced a devastating uncertainty that sent their nuclear strategy into a tailspin—and they knew that America had the money to do the research.

Genrikh Trofimenko, head of the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, later said that “99 percent of all Russians believe that Reagan won the Cold War because of his insistence on SDI.”

SDI was a deep thrust to the underbelly of the Soviet system that March 1983, and the crowning touch on a month of repeated assaults on the Kremlin.

Needless to say, President Reagan had much more in store for the Soviets in the months and years ahead, from Reykjavik to the Brandenburg Gate. By the end of March 1983, however, the Soviets knew the game was up. Alas, they had an adversary in Washington who knew how weak they truly were, and who wasn’t afraid to say so—and who was confident he could finish them off.

At that point in the timeline of the Cold War, the Soviet communist grip had only half a dozen years left. In March 1983, 25 years ago this month, that was something that history could not know; it could only know that the Cold War was really heating up. The Soviets felt the heat; for them, it was a really bad month, and arguably the start of their end.

About Paul G. Kengor

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and chief academic fellow of the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College. His latest book (April 2017) is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century. He is also the author of 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.

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About Paul G. Kengor

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and chief academic fellow of the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College. His latest book (April 2017) is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century. He is also the author of 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.