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.
‐There should be no more excuses for failing to build missile defense. The Cold War is long over. Reagan is long gone. Liberals, probably, opposed missile defense just because Reagan had proposed it. If, say, Walter Mondale had proposed it, on Reagan’s grounds of humanity, they almost certainly would have been all for it. It took Reagan to get them to say nice things about MAD.
I quote from the National Review editorial I’ve quoted from before, published in February 1999: “Defending America should not be an ideologically polarizing proposition.”
‐We are a broke nation — $16.7 trillion in debt — and it may not seem the right time to go full-bore into missile defense. To “go full speed on Star Wars” (quoting Buckley again). But there is such a thing as spending priorities. This is true of individuals, families, and governments alike.
Let me quote from the Reagan speech: “Isn’t it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.” Reagan was an idealist, yes, and he had a utopian streak. But you don’t have to have that same idealism, or that same streak, to see what he is saying, and agree with it.
I will quote from the 1999 National Review editorial: Expense should not be “an objection. In almost any government program some money will be sacrificed to the pork barrel or bureaucratic ineptitude. But if the program can save even a single city, this spending is money well wasted.”
I will quote from Mark Helprin, in the same issue of NR. He says that some people contend that SDI is uneconomical.
This is an argument that is actually presented — that it costs too much. Excuse me? We spend three times what we spend on strategic defense on cookies and crackers, six times as much on sausages and prepared meats, and ten times as much on lottery tickets. By any humanitarian measure cost is immaterial.
Finally, Donald Rumsfeld, from his autobiography:
Critics also contended the system would cost too much. I pointed out that the defense budget was less than 3 percent of our country’s gross domestic product, and that missile defense was less than 3 percent of the defense budget. Was the prospect of protecting Los Angeles or Atlanta from a dictator with a rogue missile not worth that cost? It seemed that a number of the biggest spenders in Congress suddenly became penny-pinchers to block defense programs they opposed.
‐A couple of weeks ago, I was in a television studio, listening to the guest I was to follow. She was a Democratic congresswoman. She was explaining to the audience that Republicans hated government and were content to have businessmen pollute the rivers and so on. But government had given us the good things in life. She mentioned the Internet and the highways. I thought, “Funny she doesn’t mention the Manhattan Project.”
Reagan did, in a letter to his friend Larry Beilenson in July 1983. Talking about his new missile-defense project, he said, “Let me assure you we are meeting with a variety of people and are looking at the possibility of a crash effort à la ‘Manhattan Project.’”
America should get crashing, because a defense against nuclear weapons is not something you want to be too late in acquiring. I quote David Trachtenberg: “You have to worry before the threat materializes. When the threat materializes, it’s too late to worry.”
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.