It was early 1984, and I was 23 and in graduate school in New York City, at what was then called the W. Averell Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union. I was immersed in everything from the Russian language to the study of nuclear strategy. I was working on a graduate degree in political science, but my actual field was what used to be called “Sovietology.” We were in a Cold War, and I was studying the enemy.
I was young, and like a lot of people, I was scared. I was a brash conservative Cold Warrior, and I talked a good game about facing down the Soviets at that young age, but I was hardly in denial about the dangerous global situation. Even to me, it seemed that the United States and the Soviet Union were headed for an inevitable showdown over … well, over something.
By that point in 1984, the Americans had overthrown a bunch of Marxist thugs in Grenada, called the Soviets an “evil empire,” announced a missile defense plan, and held nuclear command-and-control exercises. (The public didn’t know about that last one.) The Soviets had shot down a South Korean civilian airliner, walked out of arms talks, called the international situation “white hot,” and reacted to those American exercises by considering whether to go on alert for a retaliatory attack. (Neither the public nor the U.S. government knew about that at the time.)