Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War
ÁÎ×Ó¹â Henry C.K.Liu ¹ù¤l¥ú
hliu at SPAMmindspring.com
Sat May 20 18:21:06 MDT 2000
New York Review of Books
Copyright (c) 2000 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All
rights reserved. Copyright N Y REV, Incorporated May 11, 2000
Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War
Simon and Schuster, 592 pp., $30.00
Modern history, as it is taught in Republican campaign speeches and
conservative Op-Ed articles, holds that when Ronald Reagan took office
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
year during the 1980s, the Pentagon issued a slick booklet, "Soviet
Military Power," that recounted breathtaking new feats of Soviet
Experienced defense intellectuals warned of a "window of vulnerability,"
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
extensive civil defense network, and then fire another nuclear salvo
would leave the United States devastated and unable to respond. Almost
bad, the Kremlin could merely point to this alleged strategic advantage
American leaders, seeing the undeniable calculus, would be forced to
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
and services that satisfied the needs of a vast, multinational
Externally, communism was on the march, from Afghanistan to Central
to South Africa.
In Moscow, the Communist Party was firmly entrenched and, according to
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
his country and his job, the CIA's top Soviet analyst, Robert Gates,
in a speech, "The dictatorship of the Communist party remains untouched
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
truth," he said-in one sentence undermining Marxism-Leninism's claim to
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
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
upon this seemingly allpowerful Soviet structure and was unafraid. He
denounced it as "the evil empire," called upon Gorbachev to tear down
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.
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
Midwestern straight talk, Ronald Reagan had caused the most dramatic
collapse since Alice looked at the Red Queen and her court and
"You're nothing but a pack of cards."
Reagan's able biographer Lou Cannon writes that the President foresaw
this. In the preface to the new edition of President Reagan: The Role of
Lifetime,l Cannon says:
Reagan launched a military buildup premised on the belief that the
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
Eastern Europe and penetrate within the Soviet Union itself. Many
of the political establishment, including some leading Republicans,
these views were at best naive. They were also alarmed by Reagan's
provocative comments about communism, particularly his resonant
of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." But times changed. The Berlin
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
had foreseen, was left on the scrapheap of history.
That is, overall, the defeat of the Soviet Union went according to a
farsighted strategic plan, conceived by Reagan, who could see Soviet
weaknesses that escaped his own closest advisers, including his
of defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. It is as pretty a story
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
1983, as the trumpet blast that brought down the walls of the Soviet
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
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
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
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
it offered to give up real nuclear weapons if it could proceed with Star
Wars research. "This was the ultimate irony," FitzGerald writes. "For
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
bargaining chip to extract major concessions on offensive weapons from
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
defense buildup, the size of which was, in itself, based on a
miscalculation rather than a strategic plan. The Reagan administration
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
that would justify expenditures that had no relation to any military
They revived the B-1 bomber and recommissioned two World War II-era
battleships. They planned for a six-hundred-ship navy. They bought
seats at $600 each, and an Air Force airborne coffee maker for $14,000.
Meanwhile, Soviet defense outlays continued to grow modestly, and
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
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
with reality. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, a Democrat
had served as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tells
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,
that was an argument for reducing defense spending through arms control
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
FitzGerald's story is kinder to Reagan than one might expect. In the
liberal popular imagination, Reagan was simply an airhead, a garrulous
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
1940 movie Murder in the Air, Bancroft has to protect a superweapon
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
weapon that will make all nuclear weapons obsolete, and thereby abolish
terror of nuclear warfare."
Reagan indeed loved stories and occasionally seemed unable to separate
from fiction. As an example, FitzGerald recounts his famous tale, told
an assembly of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, in which a B-17
instead of parachuting from his stricken plane, holds hands with a
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
of Honor. FitzGerald thinks he took the episode from a scene in A Wing
a Prayer, a war film about Navy fliers in the Pacific, and confused it
reality. In fact, Reagan was not quite so oblivious; his B-17 story is
almost verbatim repetition of a brief morale-boosting item in the April
1944 Reader's Digest. In Reagan's defense, we should acknowledge that
article, though it named no names, purported to be a true account.
In any case, Star Wars has deeper and somewhat more respectable roots
Reagan's love of pretty stories. Both the Russians and the Americans
pursuing missile defenses long before Reagan came to power. And in its
various guises, missile defense has. been supported by such
strategic thinkers as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. At the
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
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
massive nuclear retaliation as the only deterrent to war. But by 1972,
Russians had accepted the US logic and agreed to the Anti-Ballistic
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
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
Again in fairness to Reagan, it must be said that he was sold on Star
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
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
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
the Kremlin. There would be no hated "moral equivalence" between
This emotional objection to dirtying America's hands by bargaining with
Communists produced fertile ground for Star Wars advocates, led at first
a retired forest products executive, Karl Bendetsen. As FitzGerald
they deceived Reagan by presenting him, at a meeting in the White House
January 8,1982, with a memorandum based in large part on the
of nuclear physicist Edward Teller:
The threat of Soviet strategic weapons was growing, the memo reported,
the US had no hope of matching it; further, there were strong
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
to a strategy of "assured survival."
The group lobbied Reagan to approve a space-based defense in which
explosions would generate an X-ray laser that would destroy Soviet
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;
Reagan, FitzGerald reports, had enough sense to say he wanted to check
his secretary of defense before making any decision.
The precise origin of the March 1983 speech in which Reagan called for
anti-missile defense is shrouded in conflicting memories. FitzGerald
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
freeze were attacking the administration both in America and in Europe.
Watkins had lunch with Teller and drafted a proposal for strategic
as an alternative to mutual assured destruction.
Watkins apparently thought of SDI as a research program. Robert
the White House national security adviser, thought more cynically that
would be "the greatest sting operation in history," a nonexistent
that could be traded for real Soviet concessions. But Reagan took the
seriously, and to the astonishment of officials, including Secretary of
State George Shultz, on March 23, 1983, called upon America's scientists
devise a defense against ballistic missiles.
>From then on, enthusiasm and wishful thinking overwhelmed common sense.
George W. Ball wrote in these pages in 1985, "Although the project
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
as unpatriotic. America could invent a defense because America could
anything. Scoffers were reminded that it had once been predicted that
aviation was impossible; the existence of airplanes was then cited as
that a space-based anti-missile defense was possible. One of
most intriguing passages discusses how Star Wars evokes an almost
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
the mission of bringing light to the world. That foreigners had the
to attack America from the skies was in itself a pollution of this Eden.
calling for a defense that would make nuclear weapons 'impotent and
obsolete,"' Reagan was, Harak writes, "holding out the promise that
might once again become an invulnerable sanctuary, its sacred soil
inviolate, as it was in the mythic past; then the nation, unsullied,
once again undertake its divinely ordained mission to the world."
This may seem, as FitzGerald acknowledges, far-fetched. But only some
of blind faith accounts for the persistence of Star Wars' staunchest
backers. Repeatedly, over the past twenty years, Star Wars advocates
acted as though the technology for their defense system already exists,
could be developed in a short time, and that an effective defense is
thwarted by lack of national will. Even today, long after the Soviet
has vanished, Congress has passed a resolution stating that it is
policy to deploy a strategic anti-missile defense, notwithstanding the
that no such defense exists and no prototype has ever passed a realistic
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
is a nearly impossible task; aides were not sure whether Reagan had
to give up nuclear missiles or all nuclear weapons, and Reagan himself
conflicting stories of what had happened. FitzGerald also gives as good
explanation as we may ever find about strategic nuclear theory, a
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
would blow each other up rather than destroy, the silos. It is strange
recall that there was once a serious proposal to keep missiles in motion
a "racetrack" that would cover much of Utah and Nevada. The missiles
have survived Soviet attack, but the idea did not survive opposition
the Mormon Church.
Within the Reagan administration, there was no agreed vision of
defense. Though McFarlane saw it as a sting, Reagan himself envisioned
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
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
close adviser Richard Perle started out as skeptics of SDI and later
into its staunch supporters.
But then, in a countervailing movement, attitudes toward the Soviet
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)
at him. FitzGerald gives a telling summary of some of these
"He professed to see in Mr. Gorbachev's eyes an end to the Soviet goal
world dominance," [William] Safire of the New York Times wrote
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
Even Reagan's successor, George Bush, professed skepticism about the
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
system created by Lenin and Stalin-not from any effort on the part of
Reagan administration. Without Gorbachev, however, the Soviet Union
have survived for many more years, for the system, though on the
was nowhere near collapse. It was Gorbachev's efforts to reverse the
decline and to modernize his country that knocked the props out from
the system. The revolution was in essence a series of decisions made by
man, and it came as a surprise precisely because it did not follow from
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
the memoirs of the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Ot pervovo
(currently available in Russian on the website www.vagrius.com, 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
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
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.
only foreign posting was in Dresden, East Germany, in the mid-1980s but
even that exposure to a European Communist country gave his wife,
grounds to complain about the empty shelves she found when she returned
Leningrad. Similarly, the origin of the Soviet Union's collapse may
lie in the automobile tour that Gorbachev and his wife made through
in the early 1960s, which allowed them to see that even Italian
residents of a country that had been defeated in World War II, lived
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
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
and to decide this year whether to proceed with deployment of a system
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
the United States; that is, instead of spending a fortune in a vain
to develop tanks to counter our tanks or jet fighters to oppose ours,
will resort to unconventional warfare, poison gas, or other weapons that
circumvent existing defenses.
If "rogue" states are clever enough to develop asymmetrical weapons,
should be clever enough not to try to attack the US by spending money
on a missile that might or might not penetrate a prospective
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
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
interception of a mock warhead last October used fewer decoys than might
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
the kill vehicle onto a collision course. Yet SDI proponents, mostly
Republican congressmen, insist on a decision to deploy even in the
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
the system without adequate evaluation. "This is driving the program to
'schedule' rather than 'event' driven," he wrote. This "pattern" of
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
system threatens to vitiate China's nuclear deterrent, a force of about
twenty intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. NMD
never work, but China, to keep its deterrent, cannot wait to find out.
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
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
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
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
turn outer space into a new battlefield, increase the risks of
conflict, and enlarge man's ability to destroy civilization," he wrote
1985. As it turned out, SDI went nowhere and, for reasons of its own,
Soviet Union surrendered. National Missile Defense is just another of
Washington scams that let pseudopatriots invent threats, wave the flag,
pick the taxpayers' pockets. FitzGerald has provided a superb guide to
one of the most grandiose of these fantasies was concocted. We shall
them with us always.
1 Public Affairs, April 2000.
2 The New York Review, April 11,1985, PP. 38-44.
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