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View series: The Cold War and Confrontation between East and West 1947-1991

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The Euro-missile Crisis 1977-1987

This map is part of a series of 9 animated maps showing the history of The Cold War and Confrontation between East and West 1947-1991.

On 23 June 1973, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Treaty (SALT I).

In particular, the two Great Powers agreed not to increase the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles that allowed them to threaten each other’s cities with total destruction, if either country was attacked.

But this agreement did not put an end to the arms race. In 1977, the Soviet Union began installing a number of their latest medium-range missiles, the SS20, in Europe, as these weapons were not covered by the SALT Treaty.

Being more accurate and having less powerful nuclear heads, these missiles could be launched against NATO military targets in Europe before the United States could retaliate, thereby running the risk of a nuclear war.

Faced with this new threat, the Europeans called for a NATO Summit.  During this meeting, NATO members demanded that the Soviets withdraw their SS20 missiles and decided to deploy American missiles in Europe if negotiations with Moscow were not successfully completed within 4 years.

Towards the end of 1981, these negotiations in Geneva failed when the Western powers refused to comply with the Soviet Union’s demand that British and French nuclear arms be included in the agreement.

The possibility that the arms race might begin again led to a series of protests by peace movements opposed to the deployment of American missiles in Europe.  

The peace protests reached a climax in autumn 1983. Huge demonstrations took place in many European capitals: Bonn, Rome, London, Paris, Brussels Madrid…. These events were particularly numerous in West Germany, where the first missiles were to be deployed.

On 1 September 1983, in a separate incident and many thousands of kilometers away, a Soviet fighter plane shot down a Korean Airlines airliner on a regular passenger flight. This discredited Soviet diplomacy and strengthened the position of those in favor of taking a firmer stance against Moscow.

Late in 1983, the United States began to install 108 Pershing II and 304 Cruise missiles in Europe.

When Mikhail Gorbachev became head of the Soviet Government in 1985, the possibility that the crisis would end seemed more likely.

In December 1987, during the Washington Summit meeting between Gorbachev and the US President, Ronald Reagan, the two superpowers finally agreed to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This ‘Zero Option’ Treaty led to the dismantlement of all their short- and medium-range missiles in Europe. For the first time, they agreed to diminish, rather than limit, the number of nuclear weapons.