Colleagues: Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most important Presidential speeches of the last century, when Ronald Reagan announced the United States would seek to build a defensive capability to intercept offensive intercontinental missiles. I have spent much of the last two months collaborating with principal players in the Reagan administration with responsibility for the program, as I prepared an analysis of the origins of the speech, the reactions of allies and adversaries, the practicalities of what came to be called his “Star Wars” program, and, most importantly, the impact it had on the Soviet leadership.
I would like to thank in particular former National Security Advisors Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane and Admiral John Poindexter, and former NSC staffers Allan Myer and Gil Rye, for their insights and commentaries.
The analysis of the SDI program and its impact on the Soviet Union is attached (Click Here: Reagan and SDI Final version), which I think you will find enjoyable reading. A much shorter version, which is posted below, will appear in this Sunday’s Reno Gazette-Journal.
Reagan’s “Star Wars” and the Collapse of the USSR
By Tyrus W. Cobb
Thirty years ago President Ronald Reagan issued a stunning reversal of America’s national security strategy. Instead of basing our security on the presumption that an attack by one superpower on the other would result in the unleashing of a catastrophic retaliatory strike, Reagan committed the United States to pursuing a strategy of defending against offensive missiles.
The President was repelled by the idea that we based our strategic doctrine on the threat to annihilate the population of the Soviet Union, and Moscow did the same. The SDI concept, however, won few friends or admirers and was widely ridiculed as his “Star Wars” plan. The scientific community largely concluded it was “technologically impossible”; others were worried spending on the program would bankrupt the country.
Reagan was a staunch opponent of traditional arms control that focused only on limiting the growth of future capabilities. The President even envisioned a world without nuclear weapons, a position that he felt fervently about, and one that was opposed by friend and foe alike, including many in his administration.
These tenets were a remarkable deviation from traditional policy. Arms agreements that actually reduced inventories; replacing the threat to annihilate populations with defensive systems; developing and then sharing strategic defense capabilities; and eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons!
“I’ve become deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence,” he stated.
In the arms control negotiations with the Soviets, SDI proved to be a very powerful bargaining chip, primarily because the President did not believe it was up for discussion. Secondly, as many of us who met with USSR officials came to realize, the Soviets were the most fervent believers that the U.S. could actually develop and field the complex systems needed for SDI to work! Moscow had apparently concluded that this system would tip the strategic balance toward the United States.
This came at a time that the USSR itself was falling further behind economically—much more so than many in the U.S. Intelligence Community believed.
We did not fully appreciate then that Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, was aware of the depths that the Soviet economy had fallen. It also appears that Gorbachev was deeply concerned about the President’s SDI program, feeling that what was at stake was more than just a space defense program. He believed that if the United States combined its technological superiority with its economic potential, America would make an enormous “skachok” (leap) ahead. In doing so, we would, to use the Marxian phrase, “consign the Soviet Union to the ash- heap of history”!
Trying to open up Soviet society (“glasnost”) and restructuring the politico-economic system (“perestroika”), while arresting the U.S. military build-up so that resources could be redirected away from the defense sector, presented formidable challenges. Neither the Soviet Union nor Gorbachev survived them
SDI was instrumental in the demise of the USSR, but was certainly not the sole factor. In the end, the combination of greater political and social freedoms instituted by Gorbachev, and policies implemented under Reagan to impose severe economic and political burdens on Moscow, together led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, on Christmas Day, 1991.