Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact

Vojtech Mastny
Project Coordinator
1920 North Ode Street, Arlington, Virginia 22209, USA
Telephone ++1/703/469-1777 Fax ++1/703/469-1771; E-mail:

6 November 2003


Stasi spies in NATO obtained actual war plans of the alliance, yet East German and Soviet leaders saw these essentially defensive plans as a cover for a forthcoming first strike-a fear that peaked in the "war scare" of 1983-according to new documents from the Stasi archives posted on the website of the Parallel History Project on NATO and the Warsaw Pact (PHP), an international scholarly network based in Switzerland and supported by the National Security Archive in Washington.

The documents appear on the 20th anniversary of NATO's "Able Archer" exercise that may have been the closest moment to nuclear war since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis because of Soviet suspicions that the exercise was a cover for a surprise US nuclear attack. Soviet intelligence desperately tried to discover further details and Soviet forces went on alert.

Obtained by the Project from the archives of former East Germany's security agency (Stasi) in accordance with Germany's 1992 declassification rules, the collection consists of reports about the findings of Stasi spies compiled by the agency for the information of top East German and ultimately Soviet leaders.

The reports were selected by Bernd Schaefer, a scholar at the German Historical Institute in Washington, as the most representative and interesting from the files that the Stasi intelligence arm had saved in 1990 as a kind of "trophy case" when the agency destroyed most of its other files. They include reports about the military posture and potential of NATO and its members states-the United States, United Kingdom, West Germany, France, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Spain, and Greece.

The documents show that most of NATO's closely guarded secrets were an open book for the communist spies. The Soviet Union was thus able to learn of its adversary's plans in the event of a war in Europe, including the 1981 war plan of the United States 5th Army Corps, reproduced on the website in a German translation. The spies also snatched detailed technical information about the West's latest military technology, such as the Pershing-2 intermediate-range missile.

The most important conclusions from the documents are:

  • The Western armament policies since the late Carter administration and especially during the Reagan administration genuinely surprised and puzzled Soviet leaders, leading them to believe the United States aimed at blackmailing them or else defeating the Soviet Union in a nuclear war-a mirror image of how American conservatives tended to view Soviet intentions,

  • Thanks to the reporting by East German agents, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies were aware that NATO's strategy was defensive yet acted, even among themselves, on the assumption that it served as a cover-up for a possible surprise nuclear strike, thus justifying their own offensive strategy on ideological rather than practical grounds,

  • NATO's November 1983 "Able Archer" exercise brought to a climax Soviet suspicions that such a strike might be imminent, though not to the extent of prompting the Kremlin to prepare a pre-emptive strike that might escalate into an all-out war, thus indicating that no conclusive intelligence of a change in NATO's strategy was forthcoming,

  • The unintended transparency of NATO's military posture, while not enough to reassure the Soviet adversary about its intentions, nevertheless had the beneficial effect of generating respect for the alliance's growing conventional capability, as well as organizational prowess, which ultimately impressed upon Soviet leaders the realization that they could not win in a technological competition with the West

The collection is introduced by Bernd Schaefer, who evaluates the documents, and by Cold War historian Vojtech Mastny, the PHP Coordinator, who relates them to the "Able Archer" incident.

All documents published on the PHP website are available for use by researchers free of charge provided acknowledgment is made of their PHP origin.

Visit the PHP website at to read other documents and find out more about the PHP's activities. The website is part of the International Relations and Security Network (ISN), run by the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich).


Sponsored by the Center for Security Studies of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, National Security Archive at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, Institute for Strategy and Security Policy in Vienna, Machiavelli Center for Cold War Studies (CIMA) in Florence, and Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies in Oslo
In association with the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC, Lyman L. Lemnitzer Center for NATO and European Union Studies at Kent State University, Institute for Contemporary History, Munich, Federal Archives of Germany, Berlin and Freiburg, Danish Institute of International Affairs, Copenhagen, Association "Diplomatie et Stratégie," Paris, Institute for Political Studies, Warsaw, Cold War Research Group, Sofia, Center for Cold War History, Prague, Cold War History Research Center, Budapest, Institute for Political Studies of Defense and Military History, Bucharest, Romanian Institute for Recent History, Bucharest, Modern History Research Center and Archives at Peking University, Beijing, "Pax Mongolica," Ulaanbaatar
With support from Institute of International Relations, Prague, and Open Society Archives at Central European University, Budapest
Affiliated with the Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes