SDI at 30, Part V

From the cover of Time, April 4, 1983


Editor’s Note: This week, we have run 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? The last part of the series is below. Parts I through IV are at the following links: I, II, III, and IV.

In that speech of his, 30 years ago, Reagan said,

I know this is a formidable technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of this century. Yet current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it’s reasonable for us to begin this effort. It will take years, probably decades, of effort on many fronts. There will be failures and setbacks, just as there will be successes and breakthroughs.

Yes — failures and setbacks, and successes and breakthroughs. How patient have people been with the failures and setbacks? That depends on whether they have wanted the project to succeed or fail.

Failures have been greeted with glee by the opponents of missile defense: “See, it won’t work!” And yet almost nothing succeeds without failures first: trial and error. Think of all the flops the Wright brothers and others had before man got off the ground.

As for missile defense’s successes and breakthroughs: These have been more astonishing than its failures and setbacks.

There are still those who oppose missile defense on grounds that it is “destabilizing.” They prefer “strategic vulnerability”: You are vulnerable, I am vulnerable. Therefore, neither one of us will aggress. This is, in short, Mutual Assured Destruction. And that may work among people of relative sanity and goodwill. But there are other types of people in the world, and some of them are driving for nukes — and, indeed, possess them already.

David J. Trachtenberg makes what I regard as an original point — at least, I have never heard it before. Trachtenberg is a longtime national-security professional, now an independent consultant. He points out that those of us who support missile defense are sometimes accused of having a “Cold War mentality.” But what of those who favor “strategic vulnerability,” ABM-style constraints on missile defense, and further arms-control negotiations with Moscow? Are they not more expressive of a Cold War mentality? We SDI-ers want to break out of it.

There is opposition to SDI, yes — but much of that has melted. Most people accept that missile defense is desirable, in one form or another. Two years ago, a pair of Obama defense officials began an op-ed as follows: “Ballistic missile defenses have matured from a Cold War idea to a real-world necessity. Threats today from ballistic missiles are real, present and growing.”

Reagan used to quip that you knew his economic program was working: They no longer called it “Reaganomics.” You don’t hear “Star Wars” very much these days either. Neither do you hear Democrats cry against “militarizing the heavens.” The Mondale-talk is pretty much dead.

And yet, missile defense is not a national priority. There is no sense of urgency about it. At the beginning of this series, I played with time a little bit: Reagan announced missile defense 30 years ago. What was happening 30 years before that? Dr. Salk announced his polio vaccine. The moon landing occurred in 1969.

To repeat, we are now more than twice as distant from the SDI speech as that speech was from the moon landing.

The American people wanted a polio vaccine, and they wanted a moon landing. Do they want missile defense? Do they know to want it? Do they realize that we are largely without protection, right now, from missile attacks?

To continue in this rhetorical vein: Have our leaders rallied the people to the cause of missile defense? Have they encouraged our best scientific minds to enlist in this cause? To participate in one of the noblest endeavors either science or government has to offer?

The answer is no. Missile defense, oddly, is not a big deal.