Watching The Americans: A 1980s Primer

The serial drama The Americans appeared in 2013 and quickly won critical praise for its portrayal of the Cold War tensions of the early 1980s, as told through the lives of a fictional couple, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. They live in suburban Washington, DC as deep undercover Soviet agents, speaking perfect, idiomatic, unaccented American English. They blend in perfectly, fooling even their FBI agent neighbor.
The story takes place during the first years of the Reagan presidency when relations between the Americans and Soviets quickly deteriorated to their most paranoid and panicked level since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The aged Soviet leader Brezhnev died, succeeded by two more elderly leaders who each died shortly after taking the helm. Ronald Reagan declared the USSR an “evil empire” and launched a massive military spending program to build a space-based system for destroying incoming Soviet missiles. The Soviets panicked, knowing that the Americans were ahead in technology and able to outspend them on defense. It is in this context that the Jennings are pressured intensely by their handlers to carry out various risky missions to handicap the American advantage.
The creators do as much as they possibly can to make viewers aware of the historical context, but a work of fiction like this can’t offer a full history lesson without disrupting the flow of the story, and people who are too young to remember the 1980s certainly need to be filled in on the details. Ideally, the story should come with footnotes, but lacking those, you’ll have to settle for the timeline I’ve created below.
Season three of the series ends in March 1983, with the Soviets falling farther behind and growing panicked about the apparent Cold War dinosaur occupying the White House. This feeling of losing ground comes across in the story as the Jennings’ oldest child, Paige, has learned their secret and is in the process of betraying her parents. As Elizabeth Jennings watches Ronald Reagan recite his “evil empire” speech on TV, her daughter is on the phone telling her pastor the family’s dark secret.
It will be interesting to see where The Americans goes with this storyline. Our morbid interest in the sordid plotlines comes from the knowledge we have that the Jennings and their American counterparts were murdering innocents and destroying their own personal lives for nothing. It was all for the ideological war that melted into the warm smiles and handshakes of the Reagan-Gorbachev summits of the late 1980s. The best serial dramas finish within four or five years before they lose their magic, so I find myself wishing the story could skip ahead three years when season four begins to show us how the Jennings adjust to the beginning of the end—the Geneva summit, glasnost (openness), perestroika (restructuring) and Chernobyl. While the story is unique in the way it makes Americans take the point of view of “the Americans” hiding among them, it will ultimately be about the Jennings downfall and loss of faith. It remains to be seen whether the writers can pull this off but still avoid the ugly triumphalism of those who believe America "won" the Cold War.

A Primer for Watching The Americans

December 1979
The Soviet Union begins its military engagement in Afghanistan. America soon enters into a decade of covert operations opposing popular anti-American uprisings in Central and South America.

August 1980
American boycott of the Olympics in Moscow to protest the Afghan War. America funds the “good guys” in Afghanistan--Osama bin Laden and other freedom fighters from Saudi Arabia.

January 20, 1981
Inauguration of President Ronald Reagan.

Late 1981

Warren Beatty releases his epic film Reds, based on the last five years of the life of the American socialist John Reed who joined the Bolshevik Revolution and died in Russia in 1920. In spite of having the subject matter most unlikely to succeed in Reagan's "morning in America," Beatty got the president to accept his offer of a private screening at the White House. Reagan liked it, except for the sad ending, and the film went on to win three academy awards, critical acclaim and a large audience.  

June 12, 1982
1 million people rally for nuclear disarmament in Central Park, New York.

November 10, 1982
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev dies, replaced by Yuri Andropov.

March 8, 1983
Ronald Reagan delivers his famous “evil empire” speech, pledging to work toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons but warning Americans not to be naïve about the ambition of the USSR to lie and sweet talk its way into subjugating the world in “totalitarian darkness.”

March 10, 1983
Barack Obama writes “Breaking the War Mentality” for a Columbia University student newspaper called Sundial.[1]

March 23, 1983
Reagan announces the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, nicknamed later as Star Wars), a space-based missile defense system intended to protect the United States from attack by ballistic nuclear weapons.

September 1, 1983
Korean Airlines Flight 007 is shot down in Soviet air space after the pilots had put the flight on autopilot and gone incommunicado. The Soviets were to blame, but the incident happened after Americans had, over the preceding two years, persistently tested Soviet defences with unnecessary near-incursions.  

September 26, 1983
During a moment of extremely high tensions, a false alarm indicates to a Soviet early warning center that five American nuclear missiles have been launched toward the Soviet Union. According to protocol, officer Stanislav Petrov should report the incident so that the Soviet leadership can decide whether to launch on warning (before confirming nuclear explosions), but he goes with his feeling that it must be an error because the detection system is new and flawed, and he knows a first strike would involve more than just five missiles.[2]

November 1983
During a NATO exercise called Able Archer, “the Soviets interpreted the simulation as a ruse to conceal a first strike and readied their nukes. At this period in history, and especially during the exercise, a single false alarm or miscalculation could have brought Armageddon.”[3]

November 20, 1983
The television movie The Day After, about the aftermath of a nuclear exchange, is broadcast to an American audience of 100 million. Reagan claimed in his diaries that it spurred him to work toward disarmament and to ignore advisers who wanted to plan for a winnable nuclear war. The world would not know until many years later how ironic the timing was, as the fictional film was shown so soon after the false alarm detected by Petrov and the misunderstandings about the Able Archer exercises. ABC aired an 80 minute panel discussion of the movie immediately after it was broadcast.

February 9, 1984
Soviet leader Yuri Andropov dies, replaced by Konstantin Chernenko.

March 10, 1985
Konstantin Chernenko dies, replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev. Soon after taking power, Gorbachev introduces a broad reform program consisting of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) and pursues strategic arms reduction talks with the United States.

November 1985
Geneva Summit, first meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev.

April 26, 1986
Chernobyl catastrophe. Gorbachev would later say that the catastrophe was the event that aggravated all existing weaknesses and doomed the USSR to collapse five years later. The social and ecological impacts of the fallout raised awareness that even a limited nuclear war would be devastating. [4]

August 1986
The first international conference assessing Chernobyl takes place behind closed doors. The IAEA and Western experts find the Soviet estimate of 40,000 deaths from the disaster far too pessimistic. The conference concludes that the figure will be no more than 4,000.[5]

Throughout 1986
World oil prices fall from $27 to $10 a barrel, depriving the USSR of vital export revenue when it is reeling from the costs of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the war in Afghanistan, and the arms race. 

October 11-12, 1986
Reykjavik Summit. Leaders on both sides express a heightened awareness of the need to negotiate in earnest to reduce nuclear stockpiles. Gorbachev shocks the Americans by offering much more than they had anticipated. He wants to eliminate all strategic weapons if the Americans will limit development of space-based weapons to the laboratory for ten years. The Americans refuse, and Gorbachev later says in Politburo session that he believed the reason was the the US preferred to keep the arms race going as a way to bankrupt the Soviet Union and undermine its popularity domestically and in the Third World. [6] In later years, Gorbachev was the only high-level figure involved to advocate for the abolition of both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, based on his experience in disarmament negotiations and in the management of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

October 5, 1986

Sandinista forces in Nicaragua shoot down a plane carrying three Americans who are transporting supplies to the American-backed Contras. The sole survivor admits to working for the CIA, and the incident exposes a large, clandestine international network that has been illegally funding the war in Nicaragua. Various members of the Reagan administration are implicated in what will be known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Some are convicted of crimes. The scandal debases the magical appeal of Reagan's "morning in America" but the president and vice president emerge unscathed.

December 8, 1987
Washington Summit. Reagan and Gorbachev manage to salvage something from the opportunity lost at Reykjavik. They agree to a step that is said to be the greatest reduction ever in Cold War tensions, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). The treaty eliminates all nuclear and conventional missiles, as well as their launchers, with with ranges of 500–1,000 kilometers (short-range) and 1,000–5,500 kilometers (intermediate-range).

May 1988
Moscow Summit. It has become apparent that SDI is becoming too costly, too opposed in the Democrat Congress and world opinion, and too unfeasible for any sort of meaningful deployment in the foreseeable future. SDI is no longer the major issue in negotiations that it once was. Reagan declares that he no longer believes the Soviet Union is an “evil empire.”

December 1988
Reagan-Gorbachev meeting on Governor’s Island, New York, attended also by president-elect George HW Bush.

January 20, 1989
Inauguration of George HW Bush.

February 1989
Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Birth of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear movement. In solidarity with victims of nuclear testing in Nevada, author Olzhas Suleimenov leads the protest movement against the nuclear weapons testing endured by the people of Kazakhstan since 1949.[7]

November 1989
Fall of the Berlin Wall, ongoing collapse of communist bloc in Eastern Europe.

October 3, 1990
German reunification.

July 31, 1991
President Bush and Gorbachev sign START (strategic arms reduction treaty). The treaty is heralded, along with the collapse of the USSR, as the “end of the Cold War," but the outcome falls far short of being a result that the human race could feel proud of. Qualifying and quantifying the degree of reduction is complex, but what is known for sure is that each side is still left with thousands of strategic nuclear warheads. Other nations possessing nuclear weapons make no commitments to reduce their stockpiles.

August 19, 1991
Gorbachev is ousted in a coup. Gennady Yannayev is declared leader.

August 21, 1991
Gorbachev is restored to power.

December 25, 1991
The end of the Soviet era. Today there is raging debate as to whether the American government made verbal, written or implicit promises in the 1989-91 period to not expand NATO eastward toward Russia’s borders. In 2015, Gorbachev, while also being a critic of some Russian policies, has stated that Western powers betrayed the promises made in 1990-91, created an unnecessary conflict in Ukraine, and brought American-Russian relations to a low and dangerous point that was inconceivable amid the friendly and optimistic mood of the early 1990s.[8][9] This is the situation we find ourselves in while the young man who wrote “Breaking the War Mentality” has become the president of the United States and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.


[1] Barack Obama, “Breaking the War Mentality,” Sundial, March 10, 1983.

[5] Thomas Johnson (director), “The Battle of Chernobyl,” Icarus Films, 2006.

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