Modern history, as it is taught in Republican campaign speeches and conservative Op-Ed articles, holds that when Ronald Reagan took office as president in 1981 the Soviet Union was a thriving superpower, militarily superior to the United States and able, without much apparent strain, to outdo America in developing and deploying dangerous new weapons. Year after year during the 1980s, the Pentagon issued a slick booklet, “Soviet Military Power,” that recounted breathtaking new feats of Soviet weaponry. Experienced defense intellectuals warned of a “window of vulnerability,” a period during which Russia might calculate that it could start and win a nuclear war. One theory, put forth by Paul Nitze, speculated that Russia had such superiority that it might launch a nuclear attack on the United States, ride out the inevitable US nuclear retaliation by sheltering in its extensive civil defense network, and then fire another nuclear salvo that would leave the United States devastated and unable to respond. Almost as bad, the Kremlin could merely point to this alleged strategic advantage and American leaders, seeing the undeniable calculus, would be forced to accept Soviet diktat.

The Central Intelligence Agency judged in the late 1970s that Soviet per capita income was about that of the United Kingdom or Japan. Internally, communism was portrayed, by us, as an economic success, distributing goods and services that satisfied the needs of a vast, multinational population. Externally, communism was on the march, from Afghanistan to Central America to South Africa.

In Moscow, the Communist Party was firmly entrenched and, according to the neoconservative scholar Jeane Kirkpatrick, incapable of change. Even as late as October 1988, a full three years after Soviet Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev had begun the revolution that eventually cost him his country and his job, the CIA’s top Soviet analyst, Robert Gates, warned in a speech, “The dictatorship of the Communist party remains untouched and untouchable…. A long, competitive struggle with the Soviet Union still lies before us.”

Yet, two months later, Gorbachev came to the United Nations in New York and, to anyone who paid attention, announced the surrender of communism. “We are, of course, far from claiming to be in possession of the ultimate truth,” he said—in one sentence undermining Marxism-Leninism’s claim to be the only scientific worldview, stripping legitimacy from the Party’s claimed right to have the “leading role” in Soviet society, and exposing his own doubt that communism would be the inevitable victor in the global class struggle. In the same speech, he announced unilateral military withdrawals from Eastern Europe. Finally, the light had failed, even for Gorbachev. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was dismantled, and two years after that, the Soviet Union collapsed altogether.

What happened? According to conservative thinkers, Ronald Reagan had looked upon this seemingly all-powerful Soviet structure and was unafraid. He had denounced it as “the evil empire,” called upon Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, and, most important, had envisioned an impermeable American defense, the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars, that would make all Soviet missiles useless.

Upon considering Reagan’s line of attack, according to the now current legend, the Soviet leaders clapped their hands to their collective foreheads in despair, realized the game was up, and allowed their entire political, economic, ideological, and social system to fall to pieces. They did not merely enter into arms negotiations; they gave up their empire, abandoned their values, surrendered their dreams, threw out their textbooks, and even lost their livelihoods. With his Everyman innocence and Midwestern straight talk, Ronald Reagan had caused the most dramatic collapse since Alice looked at the Red Queen and her court and exclaimed, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards.”

Reagan’s able biographer Lou Cannon writes that the President foresaw all this. In the preface to the new edition of President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,1 Cannon says:

Reagan launched a military buildup premised on the belief that the Soviet Union was too economically vulnerable to compete in an accelerated arms race and would come to the bargaining table if pressured by the West. He preached a message of freedom that he believed would energize the people of Eastern Europe and penetrate within the Soviet Union itself. Many members of the political establishment, including some leading Republicans, thought these views were at best naive. They were also alarmed by Reagan’s provocative comments about communism, particularly his resonant description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” But times changed. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989; by the end of 1991 most nations behind the former Iron Curtain were masters of their destiny, and the Soviet Union, as Reagan had foreseen, was left on the scrapheap of history.

That is, overall, the defeat of the Soviet Union went according to a far-sighted strategic plan, conceived by Reagan, who could see Soviet weaknesses that escaped his own closest advisers, including his secretary of defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. It is as pretty a story as any that Reagan himself ever told. But it should not survive Frances FitzGerald’s devastating, carefully researched study of the Reagan administration’s confused, chaotic, and contradictory dealings with the Soviet Union and the conservative obsession with Star Wars.

As FitzGerald shows, those who see Reagan’s Star Wars speech on March 23, 1983, as the trumpet blast that brought down the walls of the Soviet Union do not even have the benefit of the logical fallacy of post hoc, propter hoc. There is no hoc. Yes, Reagan made his speech, and, yes, the Soviet Union subsequently collapsed. But Star Wars has never been built; after an expenditure of more than $60 billion, none of its variations has ever passed a realistic operational test.

FitzGerald acknowledges that Star Wars may have had some purpose as a bargaining chip, even if only as a bluff, as former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane conceived it. But by 1987, under the tutelage of newly freed dissident Andrei Sakharov, a designer of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Gorbachev called that bluff. As Reagan persisted at a Washington summit in trying to win Soviet approval for Star Wars tests, Gorbachev told him, “I think you’re wasting money. I don’t think it will work. But if that’s what you want to do, go ahead.”

Star Wars then ceased to have any negotiating value. Yet, astonishingly, the Reagan administration was by then so captive of its own rhetoric that it offered to give up real nuclear weapons if it could proceed with Star Wars research. “This was the ultimate irony,” FitzGerald writes. “For the past three and a half years [US arms negotiator Paul] Nitze had been working on a grand compromise in which the US would use the SDI bluff as a bargaining chip to extract major concessions on offensive weapons from the Soviet Union. But now here he was offering the Soviets a concession on offensive weapons for the sake of a non-existent defense.”

FitzGerald also shows that the Soviet Union never tried to match the Reagan defense buildup, the size of which was, in itself, based on a mathematical miscalculation rather than a strategic plan. The Reagan administration was simply determined to outspend the Carter administration on defense, not realizing that President Carter had already built in a substantial increase. Reagan officials then tried to find threats and weapons systems that would justify expenditures that had no relation to any military need. They revived the B-1 bomber and recommissioned two World War II-era battleships. They planned for a six-hundred-ship navy. They bought toilet seats at $600 each, and an Air Force airborne coffee maker for $14,000. Meanwhile, Soviet defense outlays continued to grow modestly, and increased as a percentage of gross domestic product largely because the civilian sector was collapsing.

In fact, Reagan and his conservative allies had inflated the Soviet threat, announced, but did not fully build, a defense program to resist it, and then claimed credit for the defeat of a mighty giant. The claim conflicts with reality. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, a Democrat who had served as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tells us that in 1989 the CIA revised its estimates. Soviet per capita income was not equal to Britain’s; it was on a par with Mexico’s (and probably had been all along). Defense spending was surely a strain on the Kremlin, but that was an argument for reducing defense spending through arms control or retrenchment. The US military buildup and Star Wars do not explain the political and moral collapse of an empire that covered one sixth of the earth’s land surface and believed itself to hold “the brighter future for all mankind.”

FitzGerald’s story is kinder to Reagan than one might expect. In the liberal popular imagination, Reagan was simply an airhead, a garrulous ex-Hollywood actor, who seized upon Star Wars because it fulfilled his need for dramatic stories with happy endings. As a young contract actor for Warner Brothers, he had played Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft. In the 1940 movie Murder in the Air, Bancroft has to protect a superweapon called the inertia projector, which stops enemy planes by paralyzing their electrical circuits. Aides also suggested he was influenced by the 1966 movie Torn Curtain, in which Paul Newman says, “We will produce a defensive weapon that will make all nuclear weapons obsolete, and thereby abolish the terror of nuclear warfare.”

Reagan indeed loved stories and occasionally seemed unable to separate fact from fiction. As an example, FitzGerald recounts his famous tale, told to an assembly of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, in which a B-17 pilot, instead of parachuting from his stricken plane, holds hands with a wounded gunner who can’t escape and says, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” In Reagan’s version, the pilot then received a posthumous Medal of Honor. FitzGerald thinks he took the episode from a scene in A Wing and a Prayer, a war film about Navy fliers in the Pacific, and confused it with reality. In fact, Reagan was not quite so oblivious; his B-17 story is an almost verbatim repetition of a brief morale-boosting item in the April 1944 Reader’s Digest. In Reagan’s defense, we should acknowledge that the article, though it named no names, purported to be a true account.

In any case, Star Wars has deeper and somewhat more respectable roots than Reagan’s love of pretty stories. Both the Russians and the Americans were pursuing missile defenses long before Reagan came to power. And in its various guises, missile defense has been supported by such knowledgeable strategic thinkers as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. At the 1967 Glassboro summit, however, President Johnson’s negotiators tried to persuade Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin that such defenses have an inherent weakness. It is cheaper for each side to add offensive missiles than it is for the other to mount a defense against them. Deployment of a missile defense could therefore lead to an economically crippling and destabilizing arms race, as each side deployed more and more missiles to overcome the other’s defenses.

Kosygin said this was an “immoral” argument because it left the threat of massive nuclear retaliation as the only deterrent to war. But by 1972, the Russians had accepted the US logic and agreed to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which remains in force today. It bars space-based defenses and limits each nation to a single defensive site that would theoretically protect offensive missile systems, in silos, from nuclear attack.

The logic behind the ABM treaty remains in force as well. Any missile defense is subject to being overwhelmed by more incoming warheads than it was planned for, or to being spoofed by decoy warheads. A nation that is capable of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile is equally capable of the far less difficult task of equipping it with countermeasures—dummy warheads, inflated balloons, chaff—to defeat a missile defense.

Again in fairness to Reagan, it must be said that he was sold on Star Wars by scientists and military strategists with seemingly impeccable credentials. He was introduced to the concept during a 1979 visit to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, built inside a mountain in Colorado. Although the Pentagon was generally skeptical, defense intellectuals pushed the idea that America’s land-based nuclear force, missiles in silos, was vulnerable to destruction in a Soviet first strike, and that only a defense could prevent a nuclear war. This theory somehow overlooked the devastating and invulnerable nuclear deterrent that would remain aboard US submarines, any single one of which could have destroyed the Soviet Union as a functioning society.

To neoconservatives, Star Wars held out another attraction: it would obviate the need for any negotiations with the evil Soviet Union. With a defense in place, the United States would no longer have to accept Communist Russia as its equal at a bargaining table or make concessions to the Kremlin. There would be no hated “moral equivalence” between communism and freedom.

This emotional objection to dirtying America’s hands by bargaining with Communists produced fertile ground for Star Wars advocates, led at first by a retired forest products executive, Karl Bendetsen. As FitzGerald shows, they deceived Reagan by presenting him, at a meeting in the White House on January 8, 1982, with a memorandum based in large part on the speculations of nuclear physicist Edward Teller:

The threat of Soviet strategic weapons was growing, the memo reported, and the US had no hope of matching it; further, there were strong indications that the Soviets were about to deploy “powerful directed energy weapons” that would allow them to “militarily dominate both space and the earth, conclusively altering the world balance of power.” In response, it said, America must abandon the strategy of “mutual assured destruction” and move to a strategy of “assured survival.”

The group lobbied Reagan to approve a space-based defense in which atomic explosions would generate an X-ray laser that would destroy Soviet missiles as they rose in attack. It is astonishing that White House aides should have let an inexperienced president be exposed to such a sales pitch; but Reagan, FitzGerald reports, had enough sense to say he wanted to check with his secretary of defense before making any decision.

The precise origin of the March 1983 speech in which Reagan called for an anti-missile defense is shrouded in conflicting memories. FitzGerald writes that the stimulus may have come from Admiral James Watkins, the chief of naval operations, who was concerned that the administration’s nuclear strategies were running aground. No safe system could be devised for deploying land-based missiles, it was thought, and proponents of a nuclear freeze were attacking the administration both in America and in Europe. Watkins had lunch with Teller and drafted a proposal for strategic defense as an alternative to mutual assured destruction. Watkins apparently thought of SDI as a research program. Robert McFarlane, the White House national security adviser, thought more cynically that it would be “the greatest sting operation in history,” a nonexistent defense that could be traded for real Soviet concessions. But Reagan took the idea seriously, and to the astonishment of officials, including Secretary of State George Shultz, on March 23, 1983, called upon America’s scientists to devise a defense against ballistic missiles.

From then on, enthusiasm and wishful thinking overwhelmed common sense. As George W. Ball wrote in these pages in 1985, “Although the project clearly had many closet opponents there was now a mass conversion reminiscent of that decreed by King Ethelbert of Kent in the sixth century.”2 Star Wars became a touchstone for conservatives, and doubters were dismissed almost as unpatriotic. America could invent a defense because America could invent anything. Scoffers were reminded that it had once been predicted that aviation was impossible; the existence of airplanes was then cited as proof that a space-based anti-missile defense was possible. One of FitzGerald’s most intriguing passages discusses how Star Wars evokes an almost religious belief in its adherents, who support it with a faith that comes directly out of the old American evangelical tradition.

FitzGerald cites the following comment on Reagan’s stock rhetoric, from Professor G. Simon Harak of Fairfield University in Connecticut:

In the American civil religion,” he writes, “America is seen as ‘the virgin land,’ protected by two oceans and innocent of the corruptions of the Old World; it is also seen as a nation guided by divine Providence with the mission of bringing light to the world. That foreigners had the ability to attack America from the skies was in itself a pollution of this Eden. By calling for a defense that would make nuclear weapons ‘impotent and obsolete,”’ Reagan was, Harak writes, “holding out the promise that America might once again become an invulnerable sanctuary, its sacred soil inviolate, as it was in the mythic past; then the nation, unsullied, could once again undertake its divinely ordained mission to the world.”

This may seem, as FitzGerald acknowledges, far-fetched. But only some sort of blind faith accounts for the persistence of Star Wars’ staunchest backers. Repeatedly, over the past twenty years, Star Wars advocates have acted as though the technology for their defense system already exists, or could be developed in a short time, and that an effective defense is only thwarted by lack of national will. Even today, long after the Soviet Union has vanished, Congress has passed a resolution stating that it is national policy to deploy a strategic anti-missile defense, notwithstanding the fact that no such defense exists and no prototype has ever passed a realistic test.


In telling this story, FitzGerald has accomplished an extraordinary intellectual feat: in her researches, she has considered and analyzed a tremendous amount of confused and contradictory information. Trying to puzzle out what actually happened at the Reykjavik summit meeting of 1986 is a nearly impossible task; aides were not sure whether Reagan had offered to give up nuclear missiles or all nuclear weapons, and Reagan himself gave conflicting stories of what had happened. FitzGerald also gives as good an explanation as we may ever find about strategic nuclear theory, a subject that is at times so convoluted—and so divorced from reality—that it deserves Raymond Chandler’s description of an endless chess game, “the greatest misuse of human intelligence outside of an advertising agency.”

It is odd now to remember such proposals as Dense Pack, the idea of stationing US missile silos so close together that incoming Soviet warheads would blow each other up rather than destroy the silos. It is strange to recall that there was once a serious proposal to keep missiles in motion on a “racetrack” that would cover much of Utah and Nevada. The missiles might have survived Soviet attack, but the idea did not survive opposition from the Mormon Church.

Within the Reagan administration, there was no agreed vision of strategic defense. Though McFarlane saw it as a sting, Reagan himself envisioned an impermeable, space-based defense that would protect the entire American population from nuclear missiles just as a roof stops raindrops—a rather benign way of describing the explosions of thousands of nuclear warheads just above the atmosphere. Others conceded that a missile defense could never protect the entire population and would be confined only to defending US missile silos, thereby increasing Soviet uncertainty about the effectiveness of a first-strike attack.

Proponents shifted positions without warning. Paul Nitze, whose alarms about US vulnerability created an initial intellectual justification for strategic defense, later turned into a leading skeptic—and nearly doomed the program when he argued that it should not be deployed unless it was proven to be militarily workable. Since there was no way to subject a missile defense to a realistic test by exposing it to thousands of unexpected incoming warheads, Nitze’s criteria should have been a death sentence. On the other hand, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and his close adviser Richard Perle started out as skeptics of SDI and later turned into its staunch supporters.

But then, in a countervailing movement, attitudes toward the Soviet Union shifted. Reagan, the author of the “evil empire” speech, finally met Mikhail Gorbachev and had the sense to see both that he was genuine and that the Soviet Union was changing. As Reagan pursued his negotiations, conservatives (many of whom now credit him with defeating communism) jeered at him. FitzGerald gives a telling summary of some of these misjudgments:

He professed to see in Mr. Gorbachev’s eyes an end to the So-viet goal of world dominance,” [William] Safire of the New York Times wrote scornfully. In a lengthy assessment of the Reagan years in Newsweek, George Will exclaimed, “How wildly wrong he is about what is happening in Moscow,” adding, “Reagan has accelerated the moral disarmament of the West—actual disarmament will follow—by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.”

Even Reagan’s successor, George Bush, professed skepticism about the Soviet changes and his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, dismissed Gorbachev’s unilateral military concessions as coming from “a drugstore cowboy.”

FitzGerald’s more penetrating and realistic analysis gives Reagan more credit than his supposed allies did:

The [Soviet] economic decline, of course, resulted from the failures of the system created by Lenin and Stalin—not from any effort on the part of the Reagan administration. Without Gorbachev, however, the Soviet Union might have survived for many more years, for the system, though on the decline, was nowhere near collapse. It was Gorbachev’s efforts to reverse the decline and to modernize his country that knocked the props out from under the system. The revolution was in essence a series of decisions made by one man, and it came as a surprise precisely because it did not follow from a systemic breakdown.

At the time, the American public understood this better than most in Washington—and thanks in large part to Ronald Reagan.

What then precipitated the Gorbachev revolution? One answer can be found in the memoirs of the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Ot pervovo litsa (currently available in Russian on the website, and just published in English by Public Affairs as First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President). Starting in the 1960s Soviet elites had a chance to see the outside world and thus to measure their own country accordingly. By any international standard it was a failure. Families began enrolling their children in foreign-language schools in hopes of qualifying them for the highest reward their society could give: a job in the outside world as a diplomat, foreign trade official, Tass correspondent, or KGB spy.

Putin studied German in grammar school and was accepted into the KGB. His only foreign posting was in Dresden, East Germany, in the mid-1980s but even that exposure to a European Communist country gave his wife, Ludmila, grounds to complain about the empty shelves she found when she returned to Leningrad. Similarly, the origin of the Soviet Union’s collapse may partly lie in the automobile tour that Gorbachev and his wife made through Italy in the early 1960s, which allowed them to see that even Italian villagers, residents of a country that had been defeated in World War II, lived better than Soviet elites.

Though the Soviet Union has gone, fervor for Star Wars continues to this day. The program is now known as National Missile Defense, a limited deployment of land-based interceptors with the new goal of defending America from missiles launched by a “rogue” state. In 1998, a commission chaired by former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld reported that America could be subjected to such a nuclear missile threat virtually without warning. Congress has voted that it is US policy to deploy a missile defense, and even President Clinton has agreed to fund Star Wars research and to decide this year whether to proceed with deployment of a system that might be fielded in 2005.

And yet nothing has changed. There is still no prospect of a reliable shield against an incoming missile. Furthermore, defense strategists now warn us that potential foes will develop “asymmetrical” means of attacking the United States; that is, instead of spending a fortune in a vain quest to develop tanks to counter our tanks or jet fighters to oppose ours, they will resort to unconventional warfare, poison gas, or other weapons that circumvent existing defenses.

If “rogue” states are clever enough to develop asymmetrical weapons, they should be clever enough not to try to attack the US by spending money now on a missile that might or might not penetrate a prospective anti-missile defense. An enemy that wanted to detonate a nuclear weapon against the United States need not wrestle with the intricacies of launching and guiding an intercontinental ballistic missile; it would be far easier to slip a warhead aboard a ship and set it off, say, in San Francisco Bay. Former Defense Secretary Harold Brown has suggested, FitzGerald writes, that “the US would gain more protection from Third World threats by beefing up the US Customs Service than by deploying SDI.”

Star Wars also remains an essentially dishonest program. Its tests have been repeatedly rigged and the results exaggerated. Even the one successful interception of a mock warhead last October used fewer decoys than might be expected in the event of an attack and used a satellite-based Global Positioning System (rather than the more ambiguous radar intercepts that would be employed in a real attack) to maneuver both the dummy warhead and the kill vehicle onto a collision course. Yet SDI proponents, mostly Republican congressmen, insist on a decision to deploy even in the absence of successful testing. But even the Pentagon now balks; the Fiscal Year 1999 report by Philip A. Coyle III, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, protests the political pressure to field the system without adequate evaluation. “This is driving the program to be ‘schedule’ rather than ‘event’ driven,” he wrote. This “pattern” of forcing weapons programs to keep to a timetable without adequate testing, he continued, “has historically resulted in a negative effect on virtually every troubled DoD [Department of Defense] development program.”

National Missile Defense also creates the same risk of an arms race that led the US and Soviet Union to sign the ABM treaty in 1972. Even a limited system threatens to vitiate China’s nuclear deterrent, a force of about twenty intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. NMD may never work, but China, to keep its deterrent, cannot wait to find out. It could choose to respond by building more missiles in the near future, knowing that it could overwhelm the limited defense that America might deploy. Thus a missile defense system would add to the Chinese arsenal of nuclear warheads aimed against the United States.

We have come full circle: twenty years after we decided that the Soviet civil defense system was in fact an offensive threat (in that it might have tempted Russia to believe that it could survive nuclear war), we plan to deploy our own defensive system, even though China, using the same logic we once used, will certainly regard it as threatening.

After all these years, Star Wars remains as a multibillion-dollar expenditure with no end in sight. Yet we need not be apocalyptic in our concern. George W. Ball eloquently warned of dire consequences if Reagan proceeded with Star Wars. “Pursuing the President’s Star Wars program will turn outer space into a new battlefield, increase the risks of catastrophic conflict, and enlarge man’s ability to destroy civilization,” he wrote in 1985. As it turned out, SDI went nowhere and, for reasons of its own, the Soviet Union surrendered. National Missile Defense is just another of those Washington scams that let pseudopatriots invent threats, wave the flag, and pick the taxpayers’ pockets. FitzGerald has provided a superb guide to how one of the most grandiose of these fantasies was concocted. We shall have them with us always.

  1. 1

    Public Affairs, April 2000.

  2. 2

    The New York Review, April 11, 1985, pp. 38-44.