Editor’s Note: This week, we are running a series by Jay Nordlinger on missile defense. It has been 30 years since Reagan gave his speech announcing the project. What was his vision, and how has it fared? For Part I of the series, go here.
Reagan is the object of widespread respect today. He is respected even by some of those who once scorned him. So it may be hard to imagine just how mocked and reviled he was in his time. Liberal elites (to use a convenient though unsatisfactory phrase) painted him as a Hollywood simpleton who would inflict his fantasies on the country and world.
Immediately after his missile-defense speech, they dubbed his project “Star Wars.” The first movie in that series had come out in 1977; the third one (Return of the Jedi) came out in the weeks following the speech.
Reagan detested the name “Star Wars,” understandably. He expressed this detestation many times — in private. In 1985, he wrote to his friend Victor Krulak about SDI: “I bristle every time our media friends (?) call it ‘Star Wars.’”
In 1999, National Review devoted almost an entire issue to missile defense. One of the contributors was Lou Cannon, the Reagan biographer. He wrote, “Garry Wills and others have suggested that the seeds of SDI were planted in Reagan’s head by a 1940 film, Murder in the Air, the last and best of four low-budget potboilers featuring Reagan as Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft.”
Senator Ted Kennedy will give you an idea of how his side treated missile defense. Here he is speaking to students at Brown University in June 1983, two and a half months after Reagan’s speech:
. . . the administration’s START proposal for reductions would still permit us to build the B-1 bomber . . . And it would also permit the unrestrained pursuit of their Star Wars scheme for outer space — which would open another trip wire for nuclear war.
This really is a very strange idea. We cannot found national policy on fond memories of radio serials, dreams of the Old West, and the thrilling days of yesteryear. We must reject the preposterous notion of a Lone Ranger in the sky, firing silver laser bullets and shooting missiles out of the hands of Soviet outlaws.
That’s pretty much the way it went, all through the 1980s.
It would be hard to convey at this remove just how big missile defense was as a subject of debate. It was virtually dominant. There was constant political warfare over missile defense. People in such organizations as the Federation of American Scientists and the Union of Concerned Scientists became famous. They were on television all the time, talking against missile defense. A man named John Pike was a near-constant presence.
In May 1985, William F. Buckley Jr. devoted one of his big Firing Line debates to missile defense. His resolution was “We should go full speed on Star Wars.” (Sometimes, you just bow to the derisive jargon of your opponents.) WFB said that “shielding human beings from destruction” was better than “threatening to destroy human beings in order to deter destruction.” Missile defense, he said, was “a step in a civilized direction.”
That is exactly the way it seemed to me, as a college student trying to figure out the world (as one still does).