Response to Ty Cobb’s SDI Commentary

Colleagues: While many agreed with my piece on SDI (Click Here to view), assigning it a central place in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, others whose opinion I respect disagreed. I am forwarding comments by former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, former Executive Director of the CIA, Rae Huffstutler, and former Assistant Secretary of State, Ted McNamara.

First, this from Jack Matlock, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the waning days of the Cold War, and previously was the Senior Director on the NSC staff responsible for Soviet and European affairs. Jack writes:


Ty, one can say that SDI had a marginal effect on the end of the Cold War–something to be separated from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The proposition that SDI played a significant role in the break-up of the Soviet Union seems based on the assumption that Gorbachev was required to increase spending on missile defense when the Soviet Union could not afford it. The fact is that the USSR, after 1987 or so, was REDUCING defense spending. In 1990 and 1991, SDI was not even an issue! The Soviets were ready to sign a START agreement without any reference to missile defense in 1990. We delayed the signing to 1991 to get through the Gulf War.

It also assumes that economic factors played the key role in the Soviet break-up. In fact, the economic problems the USSR experienced in the late 1980s were much deeper than the role of military spending. The decline in oil prices to something like $10.00 a barrel (something we encouraged) was infinitely more important, and basically the problem was with the whole structure of the state-run economy. 

Even so, these very fundamental problems were only some of the causes. The rise of non-Russian nationalism, stoked by the three nations on the Baltic, the competition between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and the growing conviction among the Russian non-Party political elite (and some CP leaders as well) that Russia would be better off without the other republics were very important and ultimately determining.

With respect to weapons, I say that SDI had at best a marginal effect because failure to deal with the perceptions on both sides made the sort of agreement discussed at Reykjavik impossible for a time. If there had been an agreement on this issue (and Gorbachev’s offer would not have “killed” the program), we could have had an INF agreement in 1986 and a START agreement for 50 percent cuts in 1987 or 1988. This would have brought the arms reduction we sought somewhat sooner. 

Yes, the Soviet military probably exaggerated the ability of the US to deploy a viable missile defense system. In reality, however, such a defense could easily be overwhelmed. All he needed to do was to step up production of missiles and develop sophisticated decoys, both of which the Soviets could do relatively cheaply. After all, even a perfect defense would not work if all the interceptors developed were used against decoys. (We still haven’t figured out how to distinguish a sophisticated decoy from a real warhead; I doubt if we ever will.) The Soviets could fairly easily counter SDI without great economic effect, but if the arms race continued, they could not reorient their economy as they needed to do. It was, therefore, the arms race in general that the Soviets needed to end, not just (or even mainly) SDI.

In fact, by 1986, many in the Reagan administration had despaired of finding a viable space-based defense. You are right that Reagan was much taken by Teller’s approach, but as we worked on it, it became increasingly clear that anything space-based was not going to work.  Why? Because of the principle Andrei Sakharov pointed out: it is much easier and cheaper to take something out of space than to put it there. A space-based laser or other directed energy defense (the only type we could imagine that could kill a rocket in the boost phase) would be vulnerable. Furthermore, it would require much more heavy lift capacity than the U.S. had at that time; recall that the Soviets had already developed much more lift capacity while we were working on making smaller stuff more accurate. Then what happens when you put it there? All it would take is a little shove from an adversary’s satellite to knock it out of orbit. As I have written, a space-based interceptor would be more like a sitting duck than a hovering hawk. We didn’t discuss this even with staff because so much depended on convincing the Soviets that it would work!

One thing your article does not make clear is that Gorbachev asked Reagan to limit SDI research to laboratories for ten years, not forever. I was told by the White House that we could easily accept eight years and I was instructed to draft a concept paper that would allow us to accept the goal of zero nukes in 10-15 years. (We knew we couldn’t do it with arms cuts alone.) However, the roof fell in upon our return from Reykjavik when everybody reacted negatively to the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons (or ballistic missiles) in ten years. Thatcher flew to Washington in a fury, the chairman of the JCS told us he would have to testify against any such arrangement, etc. We might have managed all that, but Iran-Contra hit and the new National Security Advisor, Frank Carlucci, didn’t think much of the proposal to eliminate ballistic missiles. (It had originally been a Perle-Weinberger idea, but when we thought through it, it made a lot of sense.) They proposed it, as they proposed zero/zero in INF because they thought the Soviets wouldn’t buy it. The president accepted both ideas because he thought they made sense.  Of course, we managed to convince Gorbachev re INF once we deployed, but we never did re ballistic missiles.

One of the other points I missed in your article was Reagan’s proposal to eliminate all ballistic missiles before strategic defenses could be deployed. He made this proposal in a letter to Gorbachev in July 1986 (you can find it among the documents available on my website He repeated it at Reykjavik. (See the transcripts of the final meeting, also on that website.) This is often ignored or skipped over in discussions of Reykjavik, but the proposal was not for just strategic ballistic missiles or nuclear armed ballistic missiles, but for all ballistic missiles. (We would have needed to define a range for artillery, which would be permitted, but everything else with offensive ballistic capability would be banned. This was relevant not just for nuclear weapons but potentially for chemical and biological weapons.)  

If Gorbachev had accepted that, we could probably have convinced Reagan to include nuclear-armed cruise missiles and aircraft as well, as this would have been necessary to reach the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, so dear to Reagan’s heart. Selling it to our military-industrial complex would have been a different matter!

SDI also gave the Soviets incentives to reduce their heavy ICBMs–which many considered our most important objective–but only if they were convinced that we would not deploy defenses as part of a strategy to deliver a first strike and then protect ourselves from retaliation. This was their fear then, and also what they claim to fear now.

Yes, Gorbachev wanted to “kill” SDI, that is get if off the political agenda, but primarily because it was a political problem at home.  Soviet views were not uniform. Scientists such as Roald Sagdeyev, then head of the civilian space program, and Yevgeny Velikhov, the chief scientific honcho for nuclear power plants, thought it would not work as the military feared and could be, essentially, ignored. But this was not the view of the Soviet military-industrial complex or the Soviet politburo. The latter were shockingly unsophisticated.  Bessmertnykh told me later that they thought SDI was a plan to orbit weapons that could be used to attack ground targets. Therefore, the program was an immense political problem for Gorbachev because of these perceptions. For him, it was a political rather than technical or military problem.

In my view, the Cold War ended ideologically in December, 1988, with Gorbachev’s speech to the UN in effect discarding the international class struggle (Marxism-Leninism) as the fundamental basis for Soviet foreign policy, and unilaterally reducing the Soviet military by a half million men. The next two years confirmed that he was serious (letting Eastern Europe go free and allowing Germany to unite and stay in NATO.)

In sum, I wonder how many of the people who argue that SDI played any role at all in the breakup of the Soviet Union actually witnessed on the spot what happened in that country between 1987 and 1991, participated in all the US-Soviet negotiations, knew all the principal Communist and anti-Communist political figures and interacted with them personally as the events unfolded. It took me nearly 700 pages to describe the process in my “Autopsy on an Empire.”  You will not find any former Soviet official, including Mikhail Gorbachev, who had the most to lose from a break-up of the Soviet Union, who will agree with them that SDI, as such, played even a minor role in the Soviet collapse.




Others were also closer to the Matlock viewpoint. Rae Huffstutler, who at the time ran the Soviet Division at the CIA and later served as the Executive Director of the Agency for 10 years, wrote:


Ty, a good piece. 

I do believe that you place too much credit, however, for the
threat of SDI in the fall of the USSR, however.  It is true that it
scared the military where it was believed that the US could in fact
make good on its threats.  At this point, the military had been
undergoing severe cuts in its resources as the Politburo tried to
resuscitate the economy — Marshal Ustinov had been moved from the
Party military-economic post to the Ministry of Defense in the mid 70’s
to oversee the reductions–but it wasn’t enough to reinvigorate the

I think the three most important factors in the fall were: (1) The
long stagnation where people came to believe that the Party could not
make decisions and provide leadership (the sinking ship syndrome); (2) The
revelation by Gorbachev of the deep corruption in the Party ( which, we
heard, caused millions to turn in their Party cards); and (3) The dithering
in the face of independence movements in the Baltic and East European
states.  The failed coup against Gorbachev illustrated that the Party
was in disarray, the army could not be commanded to uphold the orders
of senior officers, and the KGB would not act.  The three legs of the
“perch of power” failed to cooperate and act decisively! 

I believe that the threat of SDI was worrisome to the military, but of marginal influence in the collapse.”




Former Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Ted McNamara also supported this perspective. He wrote:


My main point about SDI is that no single foreign policy issue, and no single military issue, was central to the collapse of the USSR.  It fell apart from internal rot and contradictions.  Certainly, SDI was one of a number of external pressures, which the USSR faced.  But, all the external pressures combined were still secondary.  Thus, SDI must be looked at in that context.  

In that context, SDI was very marginal.  Gorbachev saw it as a threat to the USSR’s future military status relative to the US, not a current problem that they were facing.  That is not to say that it was not taken seriously; it was.  The Soviet always took our new technology very seriously.  I think Gorbachev’s negotiating goal was to “head SDI off at the pass,” i.e. stop it before it became a real threat.   The cost to them would be less if they could stop it early, than if they waited to see it, maybe, become a real counter-force threat and leave them in the dust. 



In sum, I greatly appreciate these and other counter views to my commentary on SDI and wanted to be sure the readers of this Forum had those perspectives to consider as well. Ty

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *