Politics & Policy

SDI at 30, Part I

President Reagan addresses the nation on SDI, March 23, 1983 (The Reagan Library)

Saturday, March 23, was the 30th anniversary of President Reagan’s famous “SDI speech” — the speech in which he announced our missile-defense project, which soon came to be known as the “Strategic Defense Initiative,” or “SDI.” I have a piece on this subject in the current National Review. I thought I would do an online series this week, blowing it out — expanding on this piece and this topic. There are not many more important topics, frankly. A defense against nuclear missiles ought to rank pretty high in the world’s priorities, and those of the United States.

‐Reagan gave his speech on March 23, 1983. Thirty years is a long time in modern scientific terms. Thirty years before the speech, Dr. Salk announced his polio vaccine. And when was the moon landing? In 1969, fourteen years before Reagan’s speech.

Think of that: We are now more than twice as distant from the SDI speech as we were then from the moon landing.

And what have we accomplished in the last 30 years? We have accomplished a fair amount, but not as much as we could have, and not as much as we should have. We have had four presidents since Reagan. Two of them — father and son — have been strongly supportive of missile defense. The other two, including our current president, much less so, to put it mildly.

Missile defense is not a national priority, and why this is so is a puzzling, vexing question.

‐On October 16, 1986, Reagan wrote to his friend Larry Beilenson. He related a bit of history:

When I finally decided to move on what has become SDI I called a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I said that until nuclear weapons there had never been an offensive weapon that hadn’t inspired a defense all the way back to the spear and the shield. Then I asked them if in their thinking it was possible to devise a weapon that could destroy missiles as they came out of their silos. They were unanimous in their belief that such a defense system could be developed. I gave the go-ahead that very day.

‐He gave the SDI speech from the Oval Office — it started at 8:02 p.m. Much of the nation saw it or heard it, on television or the radio. The president said he had “reached a decision which offers a new hope for our children in the 21st century, a decision I’ll tell you about in a few minutes.”

In fact, most of the SDI speech was about matters other than SDI, though related: He talked about what America needed to do in the very near term, militarily. He talked about the defense budget. Have a taste of the speech, in the early going:

The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor. We maintain our strength in order to deter and defend against aggression — to preserve freedom and peace.

In due course, he got to the momentous question of missile defense:

. . . I’ve become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence.

The United States, like every other country, was defenseless against nuclear attack. All we had was MAD, which is to say, the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction: If you kill millions of ours, we’ll kill millions of yours. This did not sit well with Reagan.

If the Soviet Union will join with us in our effort to achieve major arms reduction, we will have succeeded in stabilizing the nuclear balance. Nevertheless, it will still be necessary to rely on the specter of retaliation, on mutual threat. And that’s a sad commentary on the human condition. Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?

He further said,

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?

Nearing the end of his address, he said,

. . . 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.

‐ Reagan wanted something like a shield — “a shield, not a sword,” in a phrase of the day. Edward Teller, the great physicist, titled a book of his “Better a Shield Than a Sword.” He was an adviser to Reagan, and in fact was in the White House on the night Reagan gave his speech. One of our missile-defense systems today is known as Aegis, a name borrowed from Greek mythology, denoting the shield or breastplate of Zeus or Athena.

‐For many years, peace-minded people had been crying against MAD. Only when Reagan cried too did many on the left warm to MAD. We were better off vulnerable, they said — this “strategic vulnerability” was too precious to be upset. But, again, they used to talk differently in peace circles.

This was certainly true of Nobel peace laureates. Take Lester Pearson, the Canadian diplomat (later prime minister) who won in 1957. In his Nobel lecture, he said,

. . . there is no effective defense against the all-destroying effect of nuclear missile weapons. Indeed, their very power has made their use intolerable, even unthinkable, because of the annihilative retaliation in kind that such use would invoke. So peace remains, as the phrase goes, balanced uneasily on terror, and the use of maximum force is frustrated by the certainty that it will be used in reply with a totally devastating effect. Peace, however, must surely be more than this trembling rejection of universal suicide.

And how about Philip Noel-Baker, the British diplomat, politician, and writer who won in 1959? He was a Quaker and a pacifist. In his Nobel lecture, he said,

. . . governments are constantly asserting that if they or their allies are attacked, they will instantly reply with weapons that will wipe out tens of millions of men and women and little children, who may bear no shadow of personal responsibility for what their government has done.

What is left of the morality on which our Western civilization has been built?

Funny, but that is exactly what Reagan said — to no applause from famous lovers of peace.

‐I will leave you, in this first part of our series, with some words of John Lewis Gaddis, in his history of the Cold War. He says that Reagan’s “most significant deed came on March 23, 1983, when he surprised the Kremlin, most American arms control experts, and many of his own advisers by repudiating the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction.”

In Gaddis’s view, SDI did this:

It challenged the argument that vulnerability could provide security. It called into question the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a centerpiece of SALT I. It exploited the Soviet Union’s backwardness in computer technology, a field in which the Russians knew that they could not keep up. And it undercut the peace movement by framing the entire project in terms of lowering the risk of nuclear war: the ultimate purpose of SDI, Reagan insisted, was not to freeze nuclear weapons, but rather to render them “impotent and obsolete.”

Thanks for joining me, friends, and we’ll resume 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.


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