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SDI at 30, Part III


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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 the first two parts of the series, go here and here.

The president who followed Reagan was his vice president, George Bush. The president who followed him was Bill Clinton — who was no fan of missile defense. He put the brakes on the program immediately. As Rich Lowry writes in his book on the Clinton years, he “slashed funding for missile defense roughly in half.”

As I mentioned in Part II, National Review put out a special issue on missile defense. That was in February 1999. One of our contributions was a brilliant essay by Mark Helprin, the defense analyst, novelist, and all-around intellectual and man of letters. Have a taste (a strong one):

To the question of how the United States would deal with a desperate, accidental, or renegade Russian missile launch, or with a future Iranian or North Korean attack arising from inexplicable though not unexpected madness, or with nuclear brinksmanship from a confident and aggressive new China with fleet ballistic missile submarines and MIRV’d ICBMs, the answer is that it would do nothing because it could do nothing.

What is our policy? That is our policy, to do nothing, to be capable of doing nothing, to abdicate, to prevaricate, and to fear.

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Have a further taste:

The crown jewel of arguments against strategic defense is that it will undermine and then destroy reliance upon the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which in these parlous years has prevented a nuclear exchange, based as it is upon the sound concept of deterrence. It isn’t just that strategic defense might encourage a first strike, opponents argue, but that in doing away with MAD it opens up the prospect of war-fighting and God knows what other changes in the doctrines of the most dangerous standoff in the world. That is why the ABM Treaty is sacrosanct, and why the current administration willfully handicaps even the elements of strategic defense that it is forced to allow, crippling in range, speed, and communications the weapons it then ridicules for their inadequacy.

The ABM Treaty was, of course, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed in 1972. And, just as Helprin said, it was held “sacrosanct” by the Democratic party, and other anti-Reaganites.

In April 1987, Reagan sent a letter to William A. Rusher, the publisher of National Review. He thanked Rusher for participating in an advisory group. There had apparently been a meeting, which Reagan attended. He wrote,

There was much good advice in that session and a number of suggestions we’ll put in action. I still, however, have problems with the ABM treaty. For one thing our allies have a great concern about that. I can tell you though I will not let the treaty or anything else hold us back. If we agree to any times for deploying etc. they will be based on our own knowledge of when we believe we’ll be ready which is still down the road a way.



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