The Reagan Legacy

Long before he was elected President, Ronald Reagan was asking military and other experts whether there was any alternative to the U.S. policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD), under which the United States and the Soviet Union each retained the nuclear capability to retaliate and destroy the other in the event of a nuclear attack.

Reagan apparently first encountered the idea of missile defense in 1967 when he visited Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Teller briefed the new governor of California about the work being done to stop a missile attack on the United States. “It was a rather long presentation,” Teller recalled, “and I remember clearly that [Reagan] listened quite attentively.” Some day, Teller said, space-based lasers might be used to destroy nuclear missiles fired at the United States. Reagan responded that history showed that “all offensive weapons eventually met their match through defense countermeasures.”

In 1976, when he was challenging President Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan often expressed doubts about the MAD doctrine. Daniel O. Graham, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a national security adviser to Reagan, recalled that Reagan put it this way: “Our nuclear policy is like a Mexican stand-off-two men with pistols pointed at each other’s head. If the man’s finger flinches, you each blow the other’s brains out. Can’t you military people come up with something better than that?”

Still looking for an answer, Reagan toured the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in July 1979. He asked General James Hill what could be done if the Soviets fired a missile at an American city. Nothing, Hill admitted. All NORAD could do was track the incoming missile and then give city officials 10-15 minutes’ warning before it hit.

The soon-to-be presidential candidate found it hard to accept that after three decades of the Cold War, the United States still had no defense against Soviet missiles. “We have spent all that money and have all that equipment,” he remarked, shaking his head, “and there is nothing we can do to prevent a nuclear missile from hitting us.”

Reagan kept seeking an alternative to MAD. It turned out to be the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), about which the normally modest Reagan said flatly, “SDI was my idea.” Helping President Reagan to develop the idea were key members of the White House staff. In 1981, domestic policy adviser Martin Anderson created an informal group, including science adviser George Keyworth and presidential counselor Edwin Meese, to discuss missile defense. In September and again in October, the group met with Edward Teller, Daniel Graham, and military expert Karl Bendetsen.

A turning point came in January 1982 when the group met with President Reagan. Also in attendance were Jaquelin Hume and Joseph Coors, both members of Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” and trustees of The Heritage Foundation. Although the President did not then commit himself, he asked pointed questions about the feasibility and cost of missile defense. “It was clear from his demeanor,” recalled Anderson, “that he was convinced it could be done.” Coors later told Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner that Reagan’s eyes “lit up” during the presentation.

More meetings followed inside and outside the White House, including a visit by Keyworth to Heritage. Keyworth’s support of SDI was critical. The science adviser had been skeptical about strategic defense since his days at Los Alamos in the late 1960s, but he was brought around by long talks with his mentor Edward Teller, his reading and research, and interactions with advocates like Graham and others at Heritage. Not everyone in the Administration shared the President’s enthusiasm about SDI. Once, with President Reagan present, Secretary of State George Shultz called Keyworth “a lunatic” for his advocacy of SDI, arguing that it would “destroy” NATO. But Reagan did not budge from his commitment, causing an admiring Keyworth to remark that Reagan “has this marvelous ability to work the whole thing while everybody else is working the parts.”

On March 23, 1983, President Reagan announced in a nationally televised address that development and deployment of a comprehensive antiballistic missile system would be his top defense priority-his “ultimate goal.” “I call upon the scientific community in our country,” Reagan said, “those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

Ironically, SDI was immediately ridiculed as “Star Wars” by liberal detractors like Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who had been urging nuclear disarmament for decades. The New York Times scornfully called the initiative “a pipe dream, a projection of fantasy into policy.”

However, the Soviets took SDI very seriously. Led by Communist Party General Secretary Yuri Andropov, they protested that SDI was a “strike weapon” and a preparation for launching a U.S. nuclear attack because it would nullify any Soviet response. They warned that SDI would force an expensive arms race in space, at the end of which the strategic balance would remain the same despite the enormous expenditures.

Yet privately, the Soviets acknowledged they could not compete with the U.S. in such a race. Soviet scientists regarded SDI not as a pipe dream, but as a technological feat that they could not match.

General Vladimir Slipchenko, a leading military scientist who served on the Soviet general staff, recalled that SDI put the Soviet military “in a state of fear and shock.” General Makhmut Gareev, who headed the department of strategic analysis in the Soviet Ministry of Defense, later revealed what he told the Soviet general staff and the Politburo in 1983: “Not only could we not defeat SDI, SDI defeated all our possible countermeasures.” Mikhail Gorbachev’s desperate attempts at Reykjavik to take SDI off the table in his negotiations with Reagan underscored the critical importance of the initiative.

More than any other strategic action he took, Reagan’s unwavering commitment to SDI convinced the Kremlin that it could not win or afford an escalating arms race. SDI forced Gorbachev to sue for peace and to settle the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield.

The Heritage Foundation is releasing a new documentary film, 33 Minutes – Missile Defense in February of 2009 which brings attention to the issue of missile defense for the United States. Find out more about this groundbreaking film at the site, 33 Minutes.

Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation. His areas of expertise include the history of the conservative movement and presidential history, and he is widely regarded as the chief historian of the American conservative movement. He has published more than 15 books about the leading individuals and institutions of American conservatism, including biographies of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater and a history of The Heritage Foundation. Edwards wrote his first Reagan biography in 1967, and followed it in 2005 with a second biography. Edwards’s particular familiarity with Reagan gives him a rare perspective on the beginnings of missile defense work under Reagan. Edwards is an Adjunct Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America, and has been published in such major newspapers as The Boston Globe, Detroit News, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

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