Reagan’s Highest Folly

Weapons in Space

edited by Franklin A. Long, edited by Donald Hafner, edited by Jeffrey Boutwell
Norton, 386 pp., $16.95

Space Weapons and International Security

edited by Bhupendra Jasani for SIPRI
Oxford University Press, 366 pp., $59.00

Empty Promise: The Growing Case Against Star Wars

edited by John Tirman. under the auspices of The Union of Concerned Scientists
Beacon Press, 238 pp., $7.95 (paper)


The Present Scene

With Mr. Gorbachev’s offer to conclude a treaty that would oblige the USSR and the US to withdraw all the intermediate-range nuclear missiles that now face each other in Europe, a first step has been taken to end the confusion that follows what was widely regarded as the failure of the Reykjavik meeting. The offer is forthright and unambiguous. As the official text makes clear, it is made not just in the name of the General Secretary but specifically on behalf of “the Soviet leadership and the country’s Defense Council.” Second, it is made without prejudice to the separate existence of the nuclear arsenals of the UK and France, an issue that helped lead to the breakdown of the earlier Theater Nuclear Force negotiations. Third, the USSR is prepared to begin talks immediately with a view to reducing and finally eliminating “other shorter range theater missiles.” And finally, the offer is not conditional on the US abandoning its program of research and development on SDI.

In short, the USSR has now fully accepted the “zero-zero option” for intermediate-range missiles in Europe, which it rejected only a few years ago, subject, of course, to mutual agreement to the fine print that would deal with monitoring and verification. The Reagan administration has welcomed the offer, and optimism is riding high despite some hesitant noises from the partners of the US in NATO. But the President’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), with its implied threat that the USSR’s intercontinental ballistic missiles could be rendered “impotent,” remains an obstacle to progress in arms control in the “strategic” sphere.

It was never of course in the cards that any Russian nuclear warheads would be rendered “impotent” during the first four years of President Reagan’s “strategic defense initiative.” Year five therefore begins with the United States as wide open to nuclear devastation as it ever was. A single Russian megaton could still eliminate in a flash half a million, perhaps even a million, American citizens, just as easily as it would have done the day that Mr. Reagan first stepped into the White House. What is more, only an extremely gullible chief of staff or the most naive scientist would dare encourage the President to think that the situation might change during the remaining two years of his presidency. There may be, of course, unscrupulous R&D salesmen around who are prepared to give firm assurances that an impregnable defensive screen could be placed over the United States in, say, the next ten, or twenty, or even fifty years, but that is a different matter.

The President’s November 1985 meeting with General Secretary Gorbachev in Geneva achieved little or nothing. Their talks about arms control foundered on the rocks of SDI, as apparently did last October’s discussions at Reykjavik. In the months between the two meetings, the Russian leader’s views about the likely consequences of a search for a space-based ABM system had not changed. However fanciful the President’s dream, to the Russians…

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