In a speech to the nation on March 23, 1983, President Reagan announced his Strategic Defense (“Star Wars”) Initiative, which, he said, “holds the promise of changing the course of history.” The abrupt broadcasting of that unexamined project to the nation—and to the world—was, in my view, one of the most irresponsible acts by any head of state in modern times.
To fulfill his objective of “providing new hope for our children in the twenty-first century,” the President called on the American scientific community to “turn their great talents…to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering…nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Once our scientists had developed an infallible nuclear defense, “no longer would our country-men have to rely on retaliation to protect them from nuclear attack.”
That, he implied, was as it should be, since “the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence”; and, in any event, he asked rhetorically, “wouldn’t it be better to save lives than avenge them?” “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant retaliation to deter Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic missiles before they reached our soil or that of our allies?”
He spoke with such intensity of conviction as to sound more like a prophet than a president, evoking a state of grace for all mankind in the language of biblical rhapsody, and five months later he reaffirmed his beneficent intentions by suggesting at a press conference that the United States might even give our missile defense technology to the Soviets. Because each side would then be protected against the other, humanity would no longer have to live under the threat of nuclear extermination.
Although the President announced his decision with breathless awe, there is, in fact, nothing new about the idea of developing an antiballistic missile (ABM) system, or, as it is now fashionable to call it, a ballistic missile defense. Such a proposal was first examined and debated more than thirty years ago, and in the latter 1960s there was mounting pressure to develop ABM technology. President Lyndon Johnson, reluctant to embark on an extravagant program that would almost certainly be overwhelmed by developments on the offensive side, preferred to checkmate such a step through negotiations. Finally, in 1972, President Nixon, after consideration of all aspects of the question and with the approval of Congress, reached agreement with the Soviets on the ABM treaty which provided for a mutual renunciation of all but token missile defenses.
Now in a few sentences President Reagan reversed a major American nuclear policy. What are some of the implications of that action? He initiated a project that, if successful, would require renunciation of the ABM treaty with the Soviet Union, which most informed observers regard as one of the two most important measures yet achieved to limit nuclear arms.…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.