Politics & Policy

Happy Birthday, Missile Defense

Another Reagan legacy, 20 years on.

North Korea may test a ballistic missile later this year that’s capable of reaching the continental United States. If a warhead actually were launched at us, of course, we wouldn’t be able to stop it. We would only be able to retaliate, perhaps after the death of an American city. Even if North Korea didn’t actually strike, it could threaten to strike — and we would have to take the threat seriously if only because we’d have no defense against their weapon of mass destruction.

In less than two years, however, we may be able to protect ourselves from North Korean long-range missiles — and if we do, we’ll have Ronald Reagan to thank for it because of a speech he delivered exactly 20 years ago this Sunday.

On March 23, 1983, Reagan spoke from the Oval Office in a televised address. Most of his remarks were about the defense budget and national-security policy, and he hit a variety of familiar themes. At the tail end of his remarks, however, Reagan spoke some of the most important words of his presidency:

Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today. What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?

Reagan was talking about missile defense, though he didn’t actually use these words. He continued:

I call upon the scientific community in our country, 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. … I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles. This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves. We seek neither military superiority nor political advantage. Our only purpose — one all people share — is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war.

It took Democrats and the press about 24 hours to give Reagan’s plan a name that would stick. Senator Ted Kennedy was among the first to slap the pejorative label on Reagan’s vision: “misleading Red-scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.” Other liberals would heap scorn upon what Reagan said and offer their own caricatures. Mary McGrory of the Washington Post said that Reagan had proposed “a Buck Rogers plan to transfer the arms race to outer space.” Yet it was Kennedy’s “Star Wars” formulation that would take on a life of its own. From that moment forward, the enemies of missile defense would refer Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and all its progeny as “Star Wars.”

They were trying to make a pair of related points. First, that missile defense was a Hollywood-inspired fantasy that could only exist on the silver screen, and second, that it took a former nincompoop actor like Reagan to have faith in it. Garry Wills has even suggested that Reagan might never have attached himself to missile defense if he hadn’t starred in a 1940 film called Murder in the Air, in which a Secret Service agent named Brass Bancroft (played by Reagan) must stop a spy from stealing an American “inertia projector” that can blow up bombers before they reach the United States. In the movie, the inertia projector is a “new superweapon [that] not only makes the United States invincible, but in doing so promises to become the greatest force for world peace ever discovered.”

In reality, Reagan’s support for missile defense has other sources. Edward Teller, the inventor the H-bomb, describes in Memoirs a meeting with Reagan at the Livermore weapons lab in 1967, when Reagan was governor of California. The discussion focused on missile defense. “What we told the governor was not simple, but he listened carefully and asked perhaps a dozen salient questions. Those questions made two points clear: The topic was quite new to the governor, and he understood the essence and importance of what we were discussing,” wrote Teller. “When the briefing was finished, I knew that Reagan had listened; I believed that he understood; but I had no idea whether he approved of the work or not.”

A dozen years later, in 1979, Reagan visited NORAD headquarters deep in Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain — the place where the U.S. and Canadian militaries track missile launches around the globe. The future president was aghast when Air Force general James Hill told him that the only thing they could do about a Soviet missile attack is provide a few minutes’ warning. In other words, there was no defense against nuclear Armageddon. According to Martin Anderson’s account in Revolution, Reagan kept talking about this vulnerability: “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 said.

After Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, the advocates of missile defense started promoting their idea. Teller was among these proponents, and so was Joe Coors, the beer magnate and philanthropist who died last Saturday. (In an obituary for NRO, Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner describes Coors’s committment to missile defense.) They operated below radar, and there was a clear desire to keep the content of their discussions out of the media. And so, when Reagan finally introduced SDI in his 1983 speech, he took most people by surprise.

“The rest, as they say, is history,” wrote Reagan biographer Lou Cannon in National Review four years ago. “Although Star Wars never went beyond a rudimentary testing stage, it changed the strategic arms debate in ways favorable to the United States.” It was a political smash-hit, if only because it took the wind out of the nuclear freeze movement. It was also a diplomatic coup, because it forced the Soviets to return to arms talks they had abandoned.

SDI helped end the Cold War. Secretary of state George Shultz has called Reagan’s proposed missile-defense system “the ultimate bargaining chip.” Adds Former Soviet ambassador to the United States Vladmir Lukhim: “It’s clear that SDI accelerated our catastrophe by at least five years.” The “catastrophe” he’s referring to, of course, was a Soviet catastrophe — in other words, an American triumph.

The enemies of missile defense, wedded as they are to arms-control doctrine, continue to describe Reagan’s vision of missile defense as a laughable failure. After all, they say, it was never even deployed.

They’re right about that, and their staunch opposition is a big part of the reason why. Congressional liberals refused to fund high-tech weapons research at responsible levels. Hank Cooper, former head of the Pentagon’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, insists that our technology is at least a decade behind where it should be thanks to those 1980s budget battles and the more recent hostility of the Clinton administration.

But there’s another crucial point, often forgotten in the heat of debate over missile defense: Reagan himself thought a realistic system was decades away. Here’s what he said in 1983, in what may be the most overlooked part of his speech (italics added):

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. And as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response. But isn’t it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.

In other words, 20 years ago Reagan thought that our missile-defense capabilities would be coming online right about now. Granted, a robust system that can defend against a massive attack from Russia is not currently within reach. We are very close, however, to countering the most immediate threat: the one posed by North Korea.

Two years ago, President Bush built upon Reagan’s accomplishment by withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. Last year, he announced that his administration intends to deploy a handful of anti-ballistic missiles in Alaska by the fall of 2004. People who track missile-defense developments are used to the “failures and setbacks” that Reagan spoke about, so it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the Pentagon will meet its deadline. But the fact remains that we’re very close to having a limited missile-defense system that can counter the most immediate threat we face — and that we’re in this situation now because of the groundwork Reagan laid two decades ago.

Liberals won’t ever give Reagan credit for this achievement. That would be heresy, and it would impede efforts to prevent the Bush administration from pursuing missile defense into a future that includes not only ground-based interceptors, but also airborne lasers, space-based lasers, and the like.

In the meantime, the rest of simply can say: Thank you, Mr. President.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


The Latest