ON Black Saturday, 27 October 1962, Americans went to bed unsure if they’d see the morning.

It was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the story is well known. Less familiar is the 1983 War Scare when the superpowers again stumbled towards nuclear conflict, this time because of Able Archer, a Nato military exercise. The events were dramatised on TV last year in Deutschland ’83 (pictured, inset). This book presents the real story.

Able Archer frightened the Soviets. They thought it masked preparations for a real attack and so put their own nuclear forces on alert. Some historians disagree, however, saying this extreme reaction was merely propaganda.

In this book, Nate Jones settles the debate. Using the US Freedom of Information Act he has liberated documents which tell the true story of Able Archer.His verdict is that Soviet fears were genuine and the world had again risked a nuclear holocaust.

By 1983 détente had ended and relations between the superpowers were dismal. Carter had boycotted the Moscow Olympics and raised defence spending. Reagan continued the trend, overseeing the biggest peacetime military build-up in US history and indulging in bullish rhetoric, denouncing the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Adding to Soviet anxiety was the imminent deployment in Europe of Pershing II and Gryphon missiles, plus the new Star Wars project which Gorbachev described as “a gun held to our temple.” The US was also engaging in reckless psychological operations “calculated to induce paranoia.”

We receive an impression of the Soviets in 1983 as beleaguered. Reagan would write cordial letters to Andropov and immediately contradict them in public: warm wishes on paper, denunciations on the stage. The Soviets were insecure and these documents provoke a shift in perspective, prompting us to see our monolithic enemy as baffled and anxious. The great Soviet bear ceases to growl and instead scratches its head.

During this tension, NATO began Able Archer. These exercises took place annually so should not have caused alarm but this one had “non-routine” elements: troops loaded dummy warheads onto planes; there were unusual radio silences and references to nuclear strikes, and a realistic countdown through the notorious DEFCON stages. There was also a massive surge in secret communications between the US and Britain, although this was a mere coincidence related to the invasion of Grenada but collectively these were the indicators of imminent nuclear war which Soviet spies had been trained to recognise.

They sent reports to Moscow but were only permitted to offer “raw observations”. There was no room for context or nuance and so the leadership, already paranoid, was given a skewed interpretation of what Able Archer meant. The dots were joined and the picture was a mushroom cloud.

The only hope of surviving a nuclear attack is to pre-empt it so Soviet nuclear forces were placed on alert although the precise extent of this “remains a Russian secret”. For all the author’s stellar work in releasing NATO archives, there is still much from the Warsaw Pact which remains hidden. This might also explain the often pitiful view of the Soviets in this book: we are seeing them mainly from the West’s perspective as brittle, anxious, and technologically subordinate, and their fear of invasion is dismissed in Reagan’s diary with the cruelly casual: “What the hell have they got that anyone would want?”

But the US perception of the Soviets was often wrong. The Americans would “mirror-image” the enemy, assigning motivations to the Soviets based on their own reasoning. Therefore, as the US had no intention of starting a nuclear war, they assumed the Soviet Union must realise that. This was complacent and risky as it made no attempt to understand their opponent.The folk memory of the Second World War is hugely different in the US and the Soviet Union, with the latter experiencing invasion, starvation and death in unimaginable numbers. The Americans had a relatively easy war so arguably could not conceive of the Soviet dread of another. Documents refer to the “visceral” horror implanted by 1941, and say the leadership had an “obsessive fear of war, an emotionalism” which found no echo in safe, slick Washington. Andropov bemoaned the Americans’ “lack of understanding” and drew a direct line between it and a heightened risk of war due to miscalculation.

This is a crusading book which calls for freedom of information and implores that “nuclear secrecy should not be an accomplice to nuclear stupidity,” and despite dealing with military documents it is written in a frank and accessible style. Crucially, it shows the need for greater empathy and communication between nations. As the foreword declares, “Read this book and you will make the world a safer place.”

Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the Nato Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War by Nate Jones is published by New Press, priced £22.75