Thursday, Oct. 19, Brian Morra ’78 delivered a talk at the College of William and Mary on an oft-forgotten 1983 nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Morra also discussed his novel “The Able Archers,” a fictionalized account of the event that draws on his own experiences as an Air Force intelligence officer during the Cold War. Morra’s discussion about the 1983 nuclear tensions and his novel was hosted by the Russian studies department at the College.
“The reason why [the nuclear crisis] is less known is because a lot of materials were classified until 2015,” Russian studies professor Dr. Alexander Prokhorov said. “So even though it’s a work of fiction, it is also one of the groundbreaking books about the events of 1983.”
For context, Morra set the stage of his Air Force intelligence career by describing a particularly noteworthy day in history that he played a critical role in. Sept. 27, 1983, nuclear tensions between the two world superpowers reached their apex when a Soviet defense system falsely reported that a nuclear attack was inbound. A devastating retaliatory nuclear response was largely averted thanks to Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the officer who recognized that the system was giving off a false positive and held off on informing his superiors — an action that could have resulted in a retaliatory nuclear strike on the U.S. Though Lt. Col. Petrov was dubbed as “the man who saved the world,” by a retired Soviet general, the U.S. military did not even become aware of the incident until around the turn of the 21st century, according to Morra.
Working in Air Force intelligence at this time, Morra, who was directly involved in the incident through his work under U.S. General Chuck Donnelly, was credited with de-escalating the most dangerous episode of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry in 1983, ordering the return of U.S. fighter jets in order to prevent further conflict.
“A famous quote that I heard Donnelly utter when he called the F-15s back on the 30th of September of 1983 was, ‘I’m not starting World War Three this afternoon,’” Morra said. “Then Petrov determined that the launches, these ICBM launches, were not real.”
Morra’s career in intelligence began after his graduation from the College in 1978. Though initially interested in CIA work, Morra eventually went on to build a career in Air Force intelligence instead due to a delay in processing new CIA personnel caused by budget cuts. Having thus been commissioned as an Air Force officer from 1975-76, he specialized in affairs pertaining to the Soviet Union, and was stationed in both Tokyo, Japan and Washington, D.C. After leaving military service, he worked in the private defense industry before retiring and becoming inspired to begin writing military fiction that was guided by his own career.
Throughout his talk, Morra described the Soviet leadership’s mindset entering into this series of crises in order to shine a light on their reactions and how the world came far too close to an unnecessary catastrophe. Key to the panic spreading among top Soviet officials was a growing sense that the USSR was falling behind the U.S. in terms of economic and military strength; these anxieties were in turn exacerbated by the positioning of new U.S. nuclear weapons in West Germany and the United Kingdom under President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Additionally, the Soviet leaders’ own experiences much earlier in the nation’s history informed their fears and decision-making processes.
“The leader of the Soviet Union at the time and many of his Politburo members were pretty old guys, they had lived through World War II, and they feared a repeat of what the Germans did in 1941 with Operation Barbarossa, that [they were] going to get surprised again,” Morra said, referencing Nazi Germany’s surprise attack on the USSR that began the Eastern Front of World War II. “So, their position was, ‘it’s not going to happen on my watch.’”
The last of the U.S.-Soviet crises that occurred in 1983 was in early November when NATO forces conducted a large military exercise called “Able Archer 83” in Western Europe. The Soviet Union misinterpreted the large troop and aircraft movements as the beginnings of a massive nuclear attack and scrambled their forces in response. “Able Archer 83” became the namesake of Morra’s novel, a dramatization of the sequence that draws on the real-life near-nuclear confrontations and his own experiences in the U.S. intelligence community.
“I wanted to write a book that would be more accessible to people than a nonfiction treatment of these events, and I wanted folks to get inside the skin of these actors,” Morra said.
Morra’s novel features two protagonists, one on either side of the Cold War divide: Colonel Ivan Levchenko, a Soviet officer who fills the role of Lt. Col. Petrov, and Captain Kevin Cattani, an American intelligence operative based on Morra himself.
“Some folks have asked me, ‘well, how much of Kevin Cattani in the book is you? Is it 50%? Is it 100%?’” Morra said. “It’s kind of hard to say. It’s not 100%, it’s probably a little north of 50%.”
Morra’s novel may have another life ahead of it, having been optioned by Legendary Entertainment to be turned into a television series. Morra returned to the College the night of Nov. 8 to discuss his novel for the Veterans Day Book Talk in Earl Gregg Swem Library.
Noting the most impactful parts of the presentation for her, Izabella Martinez ’24 reflected on the continuing dangers of communication breakdowns between nuclear powers.
“I think the main takeaways were the lessons that he was talking about and seeing what impacts there are and what happens when global leaders aren’t communicating. It can be very significant because it was the brink of nuclear war,” Martinez said. “I think it’s also learning from the past and looking into the future, like how can we avoid this mistake.”
Throughout his talk, Morra drew parallels between the precarious geopolitics of the Cold War and the new standoffs that the U.S may encounter in the 21st century, also stressing that effective and regular good-faith communication between world powers continues to be key to avoiding nuclear crises and the solution to many problems that exist in the world.
“Virtual communication is important, too, but I think there’s no substitute for human interaction and in creating or recreating the conditions for that through new institutions,” Morra said.