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Changing the Course of History

It's happening now, and it happened when Ronald Reagan was president.

3.23.03

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Relationships within and without the Arab world will be changed by the Iraq War. We can speculate how they will change, but we cannot know in advance. Twenty years ago yesterday, Ronald Reagan made an announcement that changed the course of the Cold War, and thus world history, but the precise outcome could not be known at the time.

On March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan, in a television address from the Oval Office, announced that we would develop a national missile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Looking back over the Reagan years, a thread can now be seen running through a list of statements and actions by the 40th president that amounted to an overarching strategy to bring the Cold War to an end.

Before his election he suspected (and afterward had confirmed in intelligence briefings) that the Soviet Union was stretching its economy almost to the limit in order to build its arsenal at an increasing rate. He reasoned that if we pushed them to the brink, and forced them to choose between economic collapse and social chaos or sitting down with us to negotiate arms reduction, they would choose the latter. It took nearly five years to get to that point, but it happened when Mikhail Gorbachev met with him in Geneva in November 1985.

Critics scoffed at Reagan's SDI. The arms control fraternity, which had spent years developing treaties which only limited the rate of growth of nuclear arsenals, warned that this would destabilize the "Mutually Assured Destruction" equation between the U.S. and the USSR. Political foes and the media dubbed it "Star Wars," the former in order to trivialize it; the latter as part of their endless effort to simplify complex issues.

In the years since the demise of the USSR, former Soviet officials have related that the Kremlin's leaders were seriously concerned about Reagan's announcement. They knew we had the technical and financial resources to develop such a system, but felt we lacked the political will. What concerned them was that Reagan was serious; he was going to supply the political will.

The genesis of the "missile shield" concept predates Reagan's announcement by 16 years. In 1967, as the new Governor of California, he was invited to visit the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory by Dr. Edward Teller, then its director. There the scientists briefed him on their planning of a defense shield to protect the United States from intercontinental ballistic missiles!

In July 1979, Reagan visited NORAD, the North American defense command, deep in a Colorado mountain. He saw the sophisticated monitoring system which could track an incoming missile from the moment it was launched. Yet, all we could do in defense would be to launch our own missiles. This was a result of the ABM Treaty which prohibited all but a single missile defense site in each country.

About a month later, a Carter White House official briefed Reagan on the newly-completed Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II). Like its predecessor, SALT I, it simply limited the rate of increase of strategic arms. Reagan then called in a number of independent experts. At the conclusion of an all-day session, he said he would oppose the SALT II treaty because "what we need are not strategic arms limitation talks, but strategic arms reduction talks."

Thus, strategic arms reduction became a basic objective for Reagan. In his 1980 campaign he called for rebuilding our defense strength -- "Peace Through Strength" -- so that "we would be second to no one." He put it into practice as soon as he was inaugurated.

A series of things turned up the heat: in 1981 a speech at Notre Dame University in which he said communism would end up on the "ash heap of history"; in June 1982, a speech to the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, in which he enunciated what became the Reagan Doctrine (assistance to democratic movements behind the Iron Curtain); on March 8, 1983, the speech to the evangelical group in Florida in which he called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire"; then his SDI announcement.

Both of the March speeches had a much greater effect on the Kremlin than was supposed at the time. Not longer afterward, the young government of Helmut Kohl in Germany agreed to station Pershing cruise missiles on its soil. Other NATO nations soon followed, thus checkmating the intermediate range SS-20 missiles which the Soviets had targeted on Western European capitals.

Reagan kept expecting the Soviet leaders to agree to a summit meeting in which arms reduction discussions would begin. "But they kept dying on me," he said. Brezhnev, Andropov, then Chernenko all expired. Gorbachev took over in Spring 1985. When the summit was finally held, Reagan told him they had two alternatives: "...to find a way to trust one another enough to begin to reduce arms, or to have an all-out arms race. That's a race you can't win." Although Gorbachev did not concede the point, Reagan felt they could deal realistically with one another.

At their second summit, in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986, talk quickly moved to the so-called Zero Option, the elimination of all strategic weapons. At the second and last session, however, Gorbachev said he would agree only if Reagan would shelve the Strategic Defense Initiative. This came as a surprise to Reagan, who angrily ended the meeting.

Reagan received a storm of criticism from poohbahs for not coming away with a signed agreement. Yet, in retrospect, it seems clear that his action at Reykjavik was the climactic event of the Cold War. Gorbachev knew the game was up. He tried to reform his overextended economy with perestroika and to permit limited free speech with glasnost. The former did not work and the latter unleashed demands for greater freedoms. The days of the Soviet Union were numbered.

Twenty years ago, when Reagan made his SDI announcement, few could have imagined that two decades later Russia would be our friend. Today, the missile defense shield is still needed, but now it is to defend against rogue states and terrorists. Next year, President George W. Bush will preside over the deployment of the first installations of this system.

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