At a time when President Obama, in responding to North Korea’s recent threats, ordered additional missel defense batteries posted on the west coast, we forget the brave, moral genesis of those technological advances. President Reagan morally repulsed by MAD (mutually assured destruction) ordered the development of “star wars.” He was lambasted for this effort in the popular press.
Ty Cobb, who was in the White House at the time pens an excellent article on the topic on the 30th anniversary of the inaugurating speech for the Strategic Defense Initiative. It is reprinted in full below.
It is important to recognize that there was a time when we had moral leadership in the White House acting for the common good of this great nation. Hopefully, for the sake of our grandchildren, it will one day happen again.
Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative Key to the End of the Cold War?
By Tyrus W. Cobb
Thirty years ago this week President Ronald Reagan issued a stunning reversal of America’s national security strategy. Instead of basing our security on the presumption that an attack by one superpower on the other would result in the unleashing of a catastrophic retaliatory strike, Reagan committed the United States to pursuing a strategy of defending against offensive missiles. The “Strategic Defense Initiative” (SDI) concept envisioned employing ground and space-based systems to protect the United States from a devastating attack. SDI was designed to permit the U.S to shift away from the idea of “Mutual Assured Deterrence” (MAD) toward a reliance on non-nuclear defensive systems.
The President was repelled by the idea that we based our national strategy on the threat to annihilate the population of the Soviet Union, and Moscow did the same. The SDI concept, however, won few friends or admirers initially, and was widely ridiculed as his “Star Wars” plan, after the George Lucas fantasy of that name. A majority of scientists called the concept “technologically impossible”; other critics worried about the impact of the spending for the program. Our Allies were non-supportive, or at best, silent in their commentaries, including stalwart friends such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The Tenets of Reagan’s Arms Control Philosophy
Reagan was a staunch opponent of traditional approaches to arms control, which in his mind were primarily focused on limiting the growth of future capabilities. He wanted arms agreements that severely reduced offensive systems, treaties that did more than just restrict future growth. Secondly, despite doubts by many critics, as well as many in his administration, Reagan envisioned global agreements to jointly build defensive programs. This was not going to be a capability that the U.S. alone would possess. Finally, the President envisioned a world without nuclear weapons, a position that he felt fervently about, and one that was opposed or ridiculed by friend and foe alike.
These tenets were a remarkable deviation from traditional policy. Arms agreements that actually reduced inventories; replacing the threat to annihilate populations with defensive systems; developing and then sharing strategic defense capabilities; and eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons!
As President Reagan stated in his speech, “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?”
The antecedents of Reagan’s futuristic SDI proposal had many Godfathers, but probably none as influential as Edward Teller. As a newly elected governor of California, Reagan was briefed by Teller on defensive technologies at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1967. Another key “Ah ha” moment came during then Presidential candidate Reagan’s 1979 visit to the NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain complex. Reagan asked the generals briefing him what capabilities we had to defend ourselves against a missile attack. The answer was, “Basically, none…we just launch a counter-strike before we get blown off the earth!” Reagan was very disturbed that our systems could detect impending annihilation, but could do nothing to prevent it.
President Reagan was concerned not only with the prospect of a superpower Armageddon, but had the foresight to see that the day was coming whereby even small and medium size countries would also possess a missile strike capability to target the U.S. His solution was to turn U.S. deterrence doctrine upside-down, to shift to defensive technologies that he would then extend to the entire world.
I know many observers have expressed doubt about President Reagan’s statements that he would share our defensive technology once we had mastered it. But I am sure he meant it, despite reservations on the part of some of his key advisors. Many times I heard the President say to foreign leaders, allies and adversaries alike, that his goal was once we had developed this technology, that we would share it with the world (including, as he said to a skeptical Mikhail Gorbachev, to the USSR—and he meant it!)
Strategic Realities Motivated Reagan and the White House
The shift to a defensive strategy was generated not just by moral concerns, but practical realities as well. The United States was falling significantly behind the USSR in strategic missile deployments, with many failed schemes littering the landscape. As Bud McFarlane wrote to me:
“To me, it (the shift) was a matter of necessity as a consequence of our having no other means of deterring the Soviet threat. Recall that after three tries (i.e., ‘Race Track’, ‘Big Bird’, and ‘DensePak’) we had failed to deploy the MX missile in any configuration. This meant leaving the USSR with a 3-1 advantage in land-based ballistic missile warheads—potentially a first-strike capability!”
Admiral Poindexter had been discussing state of the art defensive technologies with retired General Danny Graham and the CNO, Admiral Jim Watkins, who advised that there had been substantial technological improvements (over previous unimpressive efforts, such as “Safeguard” and “Sentinel”). Lack of real support in the Pentagon had also doomed earlier attempts to get money in the budget for strategic defense R&D. According to Bud McFarlane, the combination of (1) Soviet advances in fielding ICBM systems; (2) The promise new technologies offered; and (3) Repeated failures to obtain funding for outmoded defensive systems and, especially, numerous failed attempts to deploy the MX ICBM, made the shift to SDI not only attractive, but necessary.
Allan Myer, a former Army Colonel and previously an NSC staffer, had moved over to the White House speechwriting staff and had the lead there in coordinating the President’s March 23 speech. Myer strongly defends the strategic shift the speech represented, noting to me:
“What else should a President in 1983 have done? One might even be able to make the argument that given the state of technology, the growing imbalance in strategic weapons between the USSR and the US, and what it could mean for an analysis of ‘could you win a nuclear war’ by the Soviets by the 1990s……….that a President would have been derelict in his duties not to have done precisely what Reagan did in March 1983.”
McFarlane noted that their efforts turned to getting the other Chiefs on board, and Watkins was the key. At the meeting when the scheme was revealed, the other Chiefs—feeling completely blind-sided—were in shock. And non-supportive! Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and his principal deputies, such as Richard Perle, were adamantly opposed as well.
Another “strategic reality” that underscored the necessity of shifting to defensive systems, was the need to counter the vast amounts of revenue Moscow was directing to the military—by some estimates, 40% of GDP! The U.S. could not match that investment nor did it want to.
So to what extent was the idea of using SDI to “break the back of the Soviet economy” a factor? That’s up for debate. I had been calling for the U.S. to utilize its technological and economic advantages to “leverage” changes in Soviet behavior. However, I was focused more on employing these elements of national power primarily in the energy sector, which the Soviets depended on significantly. I certainly didn’t foresee SDI as a “lever”. Bud McFarlane writes that he, however, was motivated by a strategy of “imposing an economic burden that the Soviet economy would not be able to sustain”. While this strategy did not have widespread support at the time, Weinberger and his deputies came to embrace it, and possibly for that reason, gradually became more supportive of SDI.
Reagan Shocks the World by His Commitment to the SDI Program
When the president announced his concept in a March 23, 1983, national television address, it was the result of meticulous preparation in secret White House meetings between the National Security Council staff, the president’s science advisor, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was only after this review that the president felt confident enough to bring it before the American people.
In defending his SDI program, Reagan often spoke of the immoral basis of our MAD strategy, seeing this “deterrence” concept as “the sword of Damocles that has hung over our planet for too many decades.” “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,” he stated.
I remember one discussion vividly: The day before Reagan met with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985, we had a courtesy meeting with Swiss President Kurt Furgler. Like most sophisticated Europeans, Furgler spoke demeaningly and condescendingly about the “Star Wars” idea, and questioned why the President would consider moving away from the MAD doctrine that had seemingly underlined global stability.
Reagan paused for a moment, then said:
“President Furgler, I can’t help but think that here I am in Geneva— the city that hosted the conferences that led to the outlawing of the most inhumane aspects of war. Yet today I come here as the leader of one of two superpowers who base their strategies on the idea of the mutual annihilation of each others’ populations.”
“I’ve got to believe there is a better way, don’t you?”
That floored Furgler and his aides. What could they say in response? “No, we really like the idea of blowing up the world?”
It was also true that many doubted Reagan’s statements that he truly wished to rid the world of nuclear weapons. But it was a viewpoint which he held strongly, even against the advice of his closest advisors and allies. It was a point he would often raise in pre-Summit discussions, which made his national security team nervous! Those around the President had often heard him just ask, “Well, Cap…or Bud…or George…why can’t we just agree to abolish ALL nuclear weapons”? All of his advisors—and that included George Shultz at the time, despite his more recent declarations in favor of a nuclear-free world—would recoil and say something like, “Well, Mr. President, we agree in principle, but given Soviet conventional force advantages, we cannot at this time consider giving up our reliance on nuclear weapons to repel Soviet aggression.” The President would nod, “Well, ok, I won’t push it.” But you knew he would (and he certainly did at the Reykjavik Summit with Gorbachev in 1986).
Was SDI a “Pipe Dream”? Technologically feasible?
Reagan secured precious little support from the scientific community for his “Star Wars” idea. Doubt that the program could achieve its objectives is understandable. For SDI to work, our systems would have to intercept Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles at various phases of their flight. For the interception, SDI would require extremely advanced technological systems, none of which existed!
However, as then Military Assistant to the National Security Advisor (NSA) and later himself the NSA, Admiral John Poindexter, reminded me:
“The President felt that we should start a research and development program with the objective of developing these advanced systems. He was very disappointed with the scientific community’s declaration that it was not possible before the R&D had even been attempted. President Roosevelt would probably have faced the same criticism if the Manhattan Project had been made public.”
In his speech 30 years ago, Reagan avoided specifics regarding what a system might look like. His focus was on research and development–“I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term R&D program” designed to “eliminate the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles.”
Among the potential components of the defense system were both spaceand earth-based laser battle stations, which, by a combination of methods, would direct their killing beams toward moving Soviet targets. Air-based missile platforms and ground-based missiles using other non-nuclear killing mechanisms would constitute the rear echelon of defense and would be concentrated around such major targets as U.S. ICBM silos. The sensors to detect attacks would be based on the ground, in the air, and in space, and would use radar, optical, and infrared threat-detection systems.
Over the years the U.S. has pursued ballistic missile defense (BMD) with less fervor, reflecting the emerging “unipolar” world and lack of a superpower threat. However, given the rise of concerning threats from rogue nations such as North Korea, a new emphasis on constructing a viable defensive system is emerging again.
Was SDI A Bargaining Chip? Did the Soviets Believe it would work?
In the arms control negotiations with the Soviets, SDI proved to be a very powerful bargaining chip, primarily because the President did not believe it was up for discussion. Secondly, as many of us who met with USSR officials came to realize, the Soviets were the most fervent believers that the U.S. could actually develop and field the complex systems needed for SDI to work. Moscow had apparently concluded that this system would tip the nuclear balance toward the United States. They had come to believe that SDI would enable the United States to launch a first-strike against the USSR, tipping the nuclear balance decidedly against them. As Poindexter adds, the Soviets were pursuing R&D on a defensive system of their own, but believed that the U.S. was much more capable of achieving that capability than they were.
It took me personally some time to realize this. Soviet officials would constantly harangue me or my colleagues on the danger that SDI represented for the “strategic consensus”. Or that SDI was technically impossible. Or that it was so expensive that it would bankrupt us. OK, I finally thought, why would they be so concerned if chasing this scheme would drive us to financial ruin? Or why would they feel the need to stress the technical hurdles to achieve effectiveness?
The answer was that while we in the U.S., including many in the administration, were doubtful that this complex system would be feasible, the Soviet leadership actually thought we could do it. This came at a time that the USSR itself was falling further behind economically—much more so than many in the U.S. Intelligence Community believed at the time.
We did not fully appreciate then that Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, was aware of the depths that the Soviet economy had fallen. It also appears that Gorbachev was deeply concerned about the President’s SDI program, feeling that what was at stake was more than just a space defense program. He believed that if the United States once and for all combined its technological superiority with its economic potential, America would make an enormous “skachok” (leap) ahead. In doing so, we would, to use the Marxian phrase, be “consigning the Soviet Union to the ash-heap of history1”
The General Secretary knew that he needed to redirect resources away from the defense sector to rejuvenate the stagnating Soviet economic system, but first he must stop the U.S. potential to jump ahead—which he feared our pursuing SDI would do. It might not be a stretch to suggest that Gorbachev was traumatized by the prospect of a serious escalation of the costs involved in trying to maintain strategic parity with the United States.
This conclusion was echoed recently by former National Security Advisor, Bud McFarlane, who said that the best evidence of the impact of the President’s initiative has come from Russians who served in the Kremlin at the time. In 1992, the Russian Ambassador to the US, Vladimir Lukin, told McFarlane that “…your Star Wars initiative accelerated our collapse by at least five years.”
Gorbachev and Reagan: SDI Assumes Central Place at the Summits
Gorbachev knew he had to put a brake on Reagan’s military build-up, principally but not limited to SDI. However, he also realized that deep and fundamental reforms of the corrupt, centrally managed Soviet political system needed to be undertaken. While he recognized that this would cause some disruption, he failed to anticipate that the changes he was implementing would soon spiral out of control. Trying to open up Soviet society (“glasnost”) and restructuring the politico-economic system (“perestroika”), while arresting the U.S. military build-up so that resources could be redirected away from the defense sector, presented a formidable challenge. Neither the Soviet Union nor Gorbachev survived the challenges.
At their first Summit meeting in Geneva in 1985, Gorbachev made a halfhearted attempt to place restrictions on the SDI program. Failing to achieve that goal, the General Secretary fell off his objections so that he could bask in the aura of having achieved a “successful” first test on the world stage.
But the following year, in Reykjavik, Gorbachev was in no mood to settle for a “hand shake” Summit. He came loaded “for bear” with extraordinarily far reaching proposals. Until Reykjavik, Soviet leaders had dismissed U.S. proposals for arms reductions as one sided and insincere, and rejected them. Yet Gorbachev came to Reykjavik with his own dramatic proposals, including a 50% reduction in strategic offensive arms, a complete elimination of all intermediate range (INF) missiles, and a non withdrawl from the 1972 ABM treaty for 10 years.
The negotiations were complex, animated and highly substantive, and Gorbachev proved to be intelligent, knowledgeable and facile. Reagan held firm in his principles. No more unverifiable treaties (“Trust but Verify” he loved to say in Russian), no more agreements codifying Soviet superiority in arms on the European continent, no more tolerating Moscow’s refusal to grant its citizens basic human rights, and – perhaps most importantly to the President – no more reliance on offensive nuclear missiles to provide for our security. Gorbachev hung firm on many key points, I think hoping that the President would “understand” that an agreement on Moscow’s terms would ensure the President emerged from the Summit as a popular and respected world leader and peacemaker.
Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik for the Summit negotiations
At the Reykjavik summit, the one issue Gorbachev needed to lock in was an agreement that the U.S. would confine its research and testing on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the laboratory.
Some have said that the reason so many Soviet concessions were made was because Reagan used SDI as a “bargaining chip”. Maybe so. However, the reason SDI succeeded so well was precisely because the President believed in the program so passionately. It was a great bargaining tool because the President did not believe it was a “bargaining chip.”
The final session that stretched into the night was a scene of high drama. Gorbachev offered to eliminate all strategic forces, not just ballistic missiles. Reagan then countered that it would be fine with him if they could agree to eliminate all nuclear weapons. They almost had an agreement. The sticking point fell to the area that most concerned the Soviets – confining Reagan’s SDI to the laboratory and not permitting actual testing of the systems.
This the President could not agree to. The Summit ended in apparent failure and discord. As the two leaders walked to the door with dour looks on their faces, Gorbachev asked the President, “What more could we have done?” Reagan, asking Gorbachev how he could “turn down a historic opportunity because of a single word”, simply said to the General Secretary, “You could have said yes.”
The American and Soviet leaders maintained communication, but serious arms control negotiations were placed on hold for awhile, not the least because the Iran-Contra affair—which broke open just two weeks after the Iceland Summit—constrained the American President. Gorbachev, as well, was preoccupied with the failing Soviet economy, and serious challenges to his leadership from the “Old Guard” over his political reforms.
Negotiations did get back on track, however, resulting in the intermediate force reductions agreement (INF) in late 1987 at the Washington Summit, and the following year in Moscow principles were finalized on the strategic arms reductions (START) treaty.
SDI was instrumental in the demise of the USSR, but was certainly not the sole factor. In the end, the combination of greater political and social freedoms instituted by Gorbachev, and the proactive policies implemented under Reagan to impose severe economic and political burdens on Moscow, together led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, on Christmas Day, 1991.
- Tyrus W. Cobb Reno, March 21, 2013