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This week in history: President Reagan calls for the Strategic Defense Initiative

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, March 20 2013 7:35 p.m. MDT

Former President Ronald Reagan arrives in Salt Lake City on Feb. 16, 1991, for a speech at BYU.

Gary McKellar, Deseret News Archives

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On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan called for the adoption of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a program designed to protect American cities from incoming atomic missiles and end the specter of nuclear war forever.

Since the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the 1950s, the peoples of the United States and the Soviet Union had lived with the fear of a global thermal nuclear war. There was no way to prevent foreign missiles from striking American cities once launched.

By the 1980s, missiles could carry multiple nuclear warheads, each capable of completely destroying an American city and vaporizing all of the human beings within it instantly. These warheads, a little bigger than the conventional bombs dropped on Germany and Japan in World War II, could deliver the destructive force of more than 1.2 million tons of TNT, and both the United States and the Soviet Union had several thousand warheads stockpiled.

Realizing that each side was essentially hostage to the good intentions of the other, American policy makers gave a name to the terrifying strategic reality — mutually assured destruction (MAD). The theory was neither the Soviets nor the Americans would ever use nuclear weapons for the sole reason that a nuclear war would end with the complete destruction of both nations, and perhaps many more as well. The theory also acknowledged that nothing could stop the warheads once the missiles launched.

Scientist Carl Sagan famously said of the unsatisfying international situation, “The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.”

And yet, neither side could simply abandon the weapons, or one country opens itself up to nuclear blackmail by the other. For all of their destructive power, nuclear weapons played the same role that city walls had for centuries: They kept the barbarians out.

Reagan proved to be a right-wing, pro-military commander-in-chief. Throughout his first few years in office, Reagan's rhetoric became increasingly hostile toward the Soviet Union, and many feared he wanted a war. Nothing was further from the truth, however. In fact, Reagan was deeply troubled by the thought of nuclear war and the potential for the complete destruction of western civilization that such a conflict could entail.

On March 23, 1983, President Reagan went on TV and challenged America's scientists and engineers to come up with a better alternative to MAD. He hoped that technology could be utilized to create a “shield” above American cities, employing either anti-missile missiles or lasers, which could detonate incoming warheads while they were still in space.

In his book, “The Cold War: A New History,” historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote, “(SDI) challenged the argument that vulnerability could provide security. ... 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.'”

Reagan was immediately criticized over SDI, however, and many in the press derisively called it “Star Wars,” after the 1977 film. For many, including Sagan, the plan seemed fanciful and ultimately unworkable given the current state of technology. It also proved, along with Reagan's other defense measures, to be a major political issue in his 1984 bid for re-election against Democrat Walter Mondale.

The biggest opponent of the plan, however, was the Soviet Union, which feared that the United States would then be immune to atomic weapons and begin to practice its own form of nuclear blackmail. To assuage these fears, Reagan insisted that the United States would share the technology with the Soviets, and together they could make the nightmare of nuclear war a thing of the past.

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