In early November 1983, after President Ronald Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” and unveiled his so-called Star Wars missile defense strategy, Kremlin leaders were growing convinced that war games planned by the United States and NATO in Western Europe were, in fact, a disguised prelude to a nuclear first strike on Russia.
Their fear was almost palpable. On Sept. 27, a Soviet early warning station had received signals that five incoming Minuteman intercontinental missiles had been launched from American bases. The duty officer, Col. Stanislav Petrov, made a split-second gut decision that proved correct: He concluded that a satellite glitch had triggered a false alarm.
Six weeks later, as the war games began with realistic precision, fully armed Soviet fighters were placed on alert at Polish and East German bases for the first and only time in the Cold War. Soviet helicopters began ferrying nuclear weapons from storage sites to launching pads. Civilian aircraft in Warsaw Pact nations were grounded while the Soviets launched three dozen spy-plane flights over Western Europe to assess whether the mobilization presaged a sneak attack.
At Ramstein Air Base in West Germany, where the United States Air Force had its European headquarters, Lt. Gen. Leonard H. Perroots, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence there, faced, like Colonel Petrov, a quandary — one with profound potential consequences.