The Weapon That Won the Cold War - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Weapon That Won the Cold War

The most powerful “weapon” of the Cold War wasn’t a weapon but an initiative dismissed by skeptics as “Star Wars,” that is, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). And it was 40 years ago this month, on March 23, 1983, that President Ronald Reagan announced it to the world in a major nationally televised address.

Reagan had long favored an alternative to the policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD), under which the United States and the Soviet Union each retained the nuclear capability to retaliate and destroy the other in the event of a nuclear attack.

The intensity of Moscow’s opposition to SDI revealed that Soviet scientists regarded the initiative not as a pipe dream but as a technological feat they could not match.

MAD was based on the assumption, as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger put it, that in the area of nuclear strategy, Moscow would act as rationally as Washington: “They would take no risks we would not.” Mutual vulnerability was a vital precondition — both sides would be safe because both were vulnerable. Weinberger called MAD a “mutual suicide pact.”

Reagan first encountered the idea of missile defense in 1967 when he visited Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Teller briefed the new governor about the work being done to stop a missile attack on the United States. “It was a rather long presentation,” Teller recalled. “I remember clearly that [Reagan] listened quite attentively.” Someday, said Teller, space-based lasers might be used to destroy nuclear missiles fired at the U.S. Reagan responded that history showed that all “offensive weapons eventually met their match through defense countermeasures.”

Weinberger, who served in Reagan’s California cabinet, remembered that as governor, Reagan had expressed the view that America “would be better advised to rest [its] defenses on military strength” not only of an offensive character but “on means of protecting against the missiles of the other side.” That was very unconventional thinking in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

In 1976, when he was challenging President Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan often expressed his doubts about the MAD doctrine. Lt. General Daniel O. Graham, a national security adviser to the conservative candidate, recalled that Reagan put it this way:

Our nuclear policy is like a Mexican stand-off — two men with pistols pointed at each other’s head. If one man’s finger flinches, you each blow the other’s brains out. Can’t you military people come up with something better than that?

The general had no answer in 1976, but Reagan kept looking for alternatives to MAD. In July 1979, he toured the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado. According to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, Reagan asked Air Force Gen. James Hill what could be done if the Soviets fired a missile at an American city. Nothing, replied Hill. NORAD would track the incoming missile and then give city officials 10 to 15 minutes’ warning before it hit. “That’s all we can do,” Hill said. “[W]e can’t stop it.”

The soon-to-be presidential candidate found it hard to believe that the United States had no defense whatever against Soviet missiles. “We have spent all that money and have all that equipment, and there is nothing we can do to prevent a nuclear missile from hitting us,” he later said. But Reagan kept pushing for a better way, and it turned out to be SDI, about which the normally modest president said flatly, “SDI was my idea.”

Several people contributed the details, including Graham, a former director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency; Teller; and George A. Keyworth, the president’s science adviser. Keyworth’s support was critical. The adviser had been skeptical about strategic defense since his days at Los Alamos in the late 1960s. But he came around after long talks with his mentor Teller, his own research, and interactions with Graham and experts at the Heritage Foundation.

There was strong opposition to SDI within the Reagan administration, even at high levels of the Defense Department. Secretary of State George Shultz once called Keyworth a “lunatic” in front of the president for his advocacy of SDI, arguing that it would “destroy” NATO. But Reagan did not budge, causing an admiring Keyworth to say that Reagan “has this marvelous ability to work the whole thing while everyone else is working the parts.”

On March 23, 1983, the president announced in a national TV address that development and deployment of a comprehensive antiballistic missile system would be his top defense priority — his “ultimate goal.” “I call upon the scientific community in our country,” he said, “those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

Reagan’s unyielding commitment to SDI convinced the Kremlin it could not win.

Reagan called the system the Strategic Defense Initiative, but it was quickly ridiculed as “Star Wars” by liberal detractors, led by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. The New York Times called SDI a “pipe dream, a projection of fantasy into policy.” One of the most enthusiastic supporters was future House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said of a space-based antimissile system: “Every citizen who is concerned about national survival and who wants the most effective defense possible for the last cost necessary should write their congressman and senators and ask them to take a look at [it].”

Some conservatives, grown accustomed to a nuclear sword of Damocles, were uneasy over Reagan’s proposal, particularly the suggestion that the goal should be to render nuclear missiles “obsolete.” America needed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), argued hardline conservatives, to protect itself against Soviet ICBMs. No other alternative seemed possible or safe.

To those who said that the administration could not guarantee a 100 percent destruction of Soviet missiles, SDI supporters responded that no military system in history ever had been able to guarantee 100 percent efficiency. Weinberger explained that SDI was not a strategic cure-all but would “strengthen our present strategic capability” and help “curb” strategic arms competition. As Reagan put it, SDI was “vital insurance against Soviet cheating.” By contrast, MAD depended on “no slip-ups, no madmen, no unmanageable crisis, no mistakes — forever.”

The Kremlin protested that the initiative was clearly a preparation for the launching of a U.S. nuclear attack because it would nullify any Soviet response. It warned that SDI would force an expensive arms race that would end with the strategic balance the same as it was at present.

The intensity of Moscow’s opposition to SDI revealed that Soviet scientists regarded the initiative not as a pipe dream but as a technological feat they could not match. A decade later, Gen. Makhmut Gareev, who headed the department of strategic analysis in the Soviet Ministry of Defense, told Graham what he had told the Soviet general staff and the Politburo in 1983: “Not only could we not defeat SDI, SDI defeated all our possible countermeasures.”

More than any other strategic action he took, Reagan’s unyielding commitment to SDI convinced the Kremlin it could not win, or afford, a continuing arms race and led Mikhail Gorbachev to sue for peace and end the Cold War. As Russian Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, Gorbachev “had no choice but to disarm.”

Dr. Lee Edwards is founding president of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and founding chairman of the VOC Museum. This article is adapted from his The Conservative Revolution (The Free Press, 1999).


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