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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

When Reagan met with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985, they spoke about SDI for some time. In her book, “When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan,” former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote, “At the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva, chatty and close and informal as it was, SDI came up over and over again. It was clearly a major problem for Gorbachev, a major challenge. Reagan had already written him saying that a missile defense system 'can provide the means of moving to the total abolition of nuclear weapons.' But he knew SDI was also what brought the Soviets to the bargaining table, and he knew from Gorbachev's comments to U.S. diplomats that SDI was his major preoccupation.”

SDI added a new dimension to the Cold War. Whether or not the plan was unworkable, the Soviets simply could not afford to ignore the possibility that America could successfully develop a nuclear shield. From that point forward, the specter of SDI would haunt the Soviets and force them to acknowledge, among the Soviet leadership at least, their country's technological deficiencies. This served to strengthen the diplomatic hand of the United States for the remainder of the Cold War.

SDI was never developed to its theoretical full potential, largely because of the tremendous costs involved. Instead, America benefited from spin-off technology in fields such as computing, physics and engineering. With the fall of the Soviet Union and fears of a global thermal nuclear war receding, America's anti-missile technology research switched more toward medium-range missile defense rather than ICBMs.

In his book, “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” biographer Lou Cannon wrote, “On both sides, fear of nuclear warfare had been the Cold War's constant companion. Reagan, who saw a nuclear holocaust as fulfilling the biblical prophecy of Armageddon, felt certain that nuclear weapons would eventually be used if the Cold War continued, and he believed that deterrence based on mutual assured destruction was immoral. This is why Reagan was enchanted by the dream of missile defense. ... While the two leaders did not quite know how to attain their grandiose objectives, Reagan and Gorbachev were united in envisioning a world free of the terrors of nuclear war.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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