Magazine | April 8, 2013, Issue

SDI at 30

3/23/83 (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)
Reagan’s vision is not a national priority, but should be

It has been 30 years now since President Reagan gave his famous speech announcing our missile-defense project. That is a long time, as modern science goes. Thirty years before Reagan’s speech — i.e., in 1953 — Dr. Salk announced his polio vaccine. Fourteen years before Reagan’s speech  — i.e., in 1969 — we landed men on the moon. Think of that: We are now more than twice as distant from Reagan’s missile-defense 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. Why missile defense is not a national priority is a mystifying and maddening question.

It was on March 23, 1983, that Reagan gave his address to the nation. He said he had “reached a decision” of considerable importance. The country was defenseless against nuclear attack (as all countries are). 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. Reagan said, “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.”

Nearing the close of his speech, 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.”

He 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 decades, 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, and we should not have an advantage over anyone else. But, again, they used to talk differently in peace circles.

This was certainly true of Nobel peace laureates. In his 1957 lecture, Lester Pearson said that peace must surely be based on something better than a “trembling rejection of universal suicide.” In 1959, Philip Noel-Baker 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?”

That is just what Reagan said, to almost no applause from famous lovers of peace.

Today, Reagan is the object of much admiration, including from some who once scorned him. It may be hard to imagine how hated and derided he was in his time. Liberal elites (to use a convenient though unsatisfactory phrase) painted him as a Hollywood simpleton, bent on inflicting his fantasies on the country and world. Immediately, they dubbed his missile-defense idea “Star Wars.” The first movie in that series had come out in 1977; the third one came out in the weeks following Reagan’s speech.

Formally, the missile-defense program came to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. In 1985, Reagan wrote to a friend, Victor Krulak, “I bristle every time our media friends (?) call it ‘Star Wars.’”

#page#Senator Ted Kennedy was typical of the Democrats, and typical of the opposition to SDI. Here he is, speaking to students at Brown University, two and a half months after Reagan’s speech: “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.”

And so it went, all through the Eighties. The Left had a problem, however: Did they oppose SDI because it would work or because it would not work? They couldn’t make up their minds. Reagan supporters often teased them about this. There was one group of people who took SDI very seriously: the rulers in the Kremlin. Many factors brought down the Soviet Union, internal and external. One of them was SDI. A former Soviet official, Vladimir Lukhim, said, “It’s clear that SDI accelerated our catastrophe by at least five years.”

After the first President Bush came the first (and so far only) President Clinton: He immediately put the brakes on missile defense. He cut the budget for the project by roughly half. He and his fellow Democrats were devoted to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed in 1972. The Soviet Union was no more, but we were still in the treaty, and it was hampering our efforts to protect ourselves against missiles.

Late in the Clinton presidency, in February 1999, National Review devoted almost an entire issue to missile defense. One of the contributors was Jeane Kirkpatrick, who wrote, “Today, it makes no sense at all to grant Russia a veto over our capacity to defend ourselves. We should give notice and withdraw from the treaty.” That is exactly what George W. Bush did, at the end of his first year in office — in December 2001.

He did it to loud opposition. The opposition came not so much from Moscow as from die-hard Democrats. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, said we were making a “tragic mistake.” We would trigger a “massive new arms race.” Biden threatened to cut off funding for missile defense if the president went through with withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. Bush was undeterred. And SDI went forward.

The spirit of the Bush administration in this regard was captured by the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in a 2006 interview with NR. “Everyone’s saying you can’t do anything until you can do everything, and in life I’ve never found that to be the case. To me, first you crawl, then you walk, then you run. And so let’s get on with it. Let’s stick something in the ground and not pretend that it’s perfect.”

Barack Obama took office in January 2009. In April, the North Koreans staged a missile test. The very next day, the new administration announced that it was canceling the interceptors that the previous administration had ordered for Fort Greely in Alaska. SDI supporters were appalled. But flash-forward to March 2013. The North Koreans stage another test. This time, the administration announces that we will proceed with those interceptors canceled in 2009. They should be ready by 2017. We have lost four years.

If it weren’t for the ruling Kims in Pyongyang, would our Democratic presidents move at all? Here is how NR’s editorial began in that special issue published in 1999: “Thank the North Koreans. Their launch of a three-stage ballistic missile on August 31 . . . has finally concentrated minds on the need for missile defense. President Clinton has asked for a $6.6 billion increase in missile-defense spending.”

We have not wasted these 30 years since Reagan’s speech, but we have not taken full advantage of them either. We have a rudimentary missile defense; we are not completely naked unto our enemies. But we have nothing like a reliable ability to defend ourselves against missile attack. Presumably, North Korea, Iran, and other bad actors will progress beyond the nuclear Stone Age, someday.

#page#For too many years, we operated within the restraints of the ABM Treaty. Yet something else must be acknowledged: Missile defense is hard. An expert says, “I don’t want to take anything away from the wizards at Apple who give us iPhones and other wonderful gadgets. But that is easier than getting one missile to strike another, each hurtling at 15,000 miles per hour in the vastness of space.” At the same time, missile defense is doable. Human ingenuity can achieve it. What it takes is political will, or national will.

Opposition to SDI is less a problem than it once was. 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.

Still, there is no sense of urgency about missile defense. Americans wanted a polio vaccine and a moon landing. Do they want missile defense? Do they know to want it? Have our leaders rallied them to the cause? Are our best minds being enlisted in the cause, being encouraged to participate in one of the noblest undertakings science or the government has to offer? No.

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. But there is such a thing as spending priorities. In his 1983 speech, Reagan said, “Isn’t it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.” You don’t have to be as idealistic, not to say utopian, as Reagan to agree.

A few days 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.

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