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).
There were some honest arguments on the other side. It wasn’t all Ted Kennedy–like rhetoric. Maybe the best argument was that an American missile-defense program might spook the Soviets into launching a first strike.
A great phrase of the day was “militarize the heavens.” “Do not militarize the heavens!” You could see it on bumper stickers, you could hear it out of the mouths of Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, and a thousand others. Reagan and his minions (an Obama phrase) were out to “militarize the heavens.”
That made a defense against nuclear weapons sound so very bad: These right-wing crazies were “militarizing the heavens.” Who wants his heavens militarized?
The Left had a problem — a fairly substantial problem. They couldn’t quite figure out whether they opposed SDI because it would work or because it wouldn’t work. They talked out of both sides of their mouths. Sometimes they were embarrassed about this. Reagan supporters teased them about it a lot.
There was one group of people who took SDI very seriously: the rulers in the Kremlin. In a 1985 letter to Krulak — later than the one quoted above — Reagan spoke of “the Soviets and their hysteria over the SDI.” He said, “I wonder why some of our own carping critics who claim SDI is an impractical wasted effort don’t ask themselves, if it’s no good how come the Russians are so upset about it?”
Some on the left conceded that SDI could be a useful “bargaining chip.” Reagan never saw it that way: He swore over and over that he would never bargain it away, that missile defense was too important to the future of mankind.
Here he is in a letter to Larry Beilenson, August 1, 1986: “We will not allow SDI to become a bargaining chip. My own view is that we may be able to develop a defensive shield so effective that we can use it to rid the world once and for all of nuclear missiles. Then — since we all know how to make them we preserve SDI as we did our gas masks in the event a madman comes along some day and secretly puts some together.”
As you see, Reagan had a utopian streak (to go with his steely realism). We will see this streak again, and talk about it, later in the series.
He cratered the Reykjavik summit, everyone said. This was October 1986. He blew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make steep reductions in nukes, because he refused to give up this stupid Star Wars idea. He clung stubbornly to his fantasy. Thus did he let the world down.
Sam Donaldson said it, the New York Times said it, everyone said it.
As you know, various factors brought down the Soviet Union: factors internal and external. One of them was SDI. A former high-ranking Soviet official, Vladimir Lukhim, said, “It’s clear that SDI accelerated our catastrophe by at least five years.”
Thanks for joining me today, friends, and see you tomorrow.
To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.