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

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) Former President Ronald Reagan arrives in Salt Lake City on Feb. 16, 1991, for a speech at BYU. (Gary McKellar, Deseret News Archives)

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.

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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