Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War

Les Schaffer godzilla at SPAMnetmeg.net
Sat May 20 20:05:24 MDT 2000

[Reformated, to give Lou that feeling someone else is minding the
ranch while he's out in Montana.]

Lars-Erik Nelson

New York Review of Books
Page 4-7
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
Frances FitzGerald.

Simon and Schuster, 592 pp., $30.00

Lars-Erik Nelson


Modern history, as it is taught in Republican campaign speeches and
conservative Op-Ed articles, holds that when Ronald Reagan took office
as 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 after year during the 1980s, the Pentagon
issued a slick booklet, "Soviet Military Power," that recounted
breathtaking new feats of Soviet weaponry.  Experienced defense
intellectuals warned of a "window of vulnerability," a 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 its extensive civil defense network, and then fire another nuclear
salvo that would leave the United States devastated and unable to
respond. Almost as bad, the Kremlin could merely point to this alleged
strategic advantage and American leaders, seeing the undeniable
calculus, would be forced to accept Soviet diktat.

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 goods and services that satisfied the needs of a
vast, multinational population.  Externally, communism was on the
march, from Afghanistan to Central America to South Africa.

In Moscow, the Communist Party was firmly entrenched and, according to
the 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 him his country and his job, the CIA's top Soviet
analyst, Robert Gates, warned in a speech, "The dictatorship of the
Communist party remains untouched and 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

"We are, of course, far from claiming to be in possession of the
ultimate truth," he said-in one sentence undermining
Marxism-Leninism's claim to be 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 global 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
looked upon this seemingly allpowerful Soviet structure and was
unafraid. He had denounced it as "the evil empire," called upon
Gorbachev to tear down the 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.  They 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 and Midwestern straight talk, Ronald Reagan had
caused the most dramatic collapse since Alice looked at the Red Queen
and her court and exclaimed, "You're nothing but a pack of cards."

Reagan's able biographer Lou Cannon writes that the President foresaw
all this. In the preface to the new edition of President Reagan: The
Role of a Lifetime,l Cannon says: Reagan launched a military buildup
premised on the belief that the Soviet 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 of Eastern
Europe and penetrate within the Soviet Union itself. Many members of
the political establishment, including some leading Republicans,
thought these views were at best naive. They were also alarmed by
Reagan's provocative comments about communism, particularly his
resonant description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." But
times changed. The Berlin Wall 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 Reagan 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
secretary of defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. It is as
pretty a story as 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
23, 1983, as the trumpet blast that brought down the walls of the
Soviet Union 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 an 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
of 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 told 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 that it offered to give up real nuclear weapons if it
could proceed with Star Wars research. "This was the ultimate irony,"
FitzGerald writes. "For the 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 a bargaining chip to extract major
concessions on offensive weapons from the 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
Reagan defense buildup, the size of which was, in itself, based on a
mathematical miscalculation rather than a strategic plan. The Reagan
administration was 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 systems that would justify expenditures
that had no relation to any military need.  They revived the B-1
bomber and recommissioned two World War II-era battleships. They
planned for a six-hundred-ship navy. They bought toilet seats at $600
each, and an Air Force airborne coffee maker for $14,000.  Meanwhile,
Soviet defense outlays continued to grow modestly, and increased 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
threat, 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 conflicts with reality. Senator Daniel Patrick
Moynihan of New York, a Democrat who had served as vice chairman of
the Senate Intelligence Committee, tells us 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, but that
was an argument for reducing defense spending through arms control or
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 for all mankind."

FitzGerald's story is kinder to Reagan than one might expect. In the
liberal popular imagination, Reagan was simply an airhead, a garrulous
ex-- 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 the 1940 movie Murder in the Air, Bancroft has to protect
a superweapon called 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 defensive weapon that will make all nuclear weapons
obsolete, and thereby abolish the terror of nuclear warfare."

Reagan indeed loved stories and occasionally seemed unable to separate
fact from fiction. As an example, FitzGerald recounts his famous tale,
told to an assembly of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, in which
a B-17 pilot, instead of parachuting from his stricken plane, holds
hands with a wounded 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 Medal of Honor. FitzGerald thinks he took the
episode from a scene in A Wing and a Prayer, a war film about Navy
fliers in the Pacific, and confused it with reality. In fact, Reagan
was not quite so oblivious; his B-17 story is an almost verbatim
repetition of a brief morale-boosting item in the April 1944 Reader's
Digest. In Reagan's defense, we should acknowledge that the article,
though it named no names, purported to be a true account.

In any case, Star Wars has deeper and somewhat more respectable roots
than Reagan's love of pretty stories. Both the Russians and the
Americans were pursuing missile defenses long before Reagan came to
power. And in its various guises, missile defense has. been supported
by such knowledgeable strategic thinkers as Henry Kissinger and
Zbigniew Brzezinski. At the 1967 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 a 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
of massive nuclear retaliation as the only deterrent to war. But by
1972, the Russians had accepted the US logic and agreed to the
Anti-Ballistic Missile 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
it 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
missile defense.

Again in fairness to Reagan, it must be said that he was sold on Star
Wars 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
strike, 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 destroyed 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 to the Kremlin. There would be no hated "moral
equivalence" between communism and freedom.

This emotional objection to dirtying America's hands by bargaining
with Communists produced fertile ground for Star Wars advocates, led
at first by a retired forest products executive, Karl Bendetsen. As
FitzGerald shows, they deceived Reagan by presenting him, at a meeting
in the White House on January 8,1982, with a memorandum based in large
part on the speculations of nuclear physicist Edward Teller: The
threat of Soviet strategic weapons was growing, the memo reported, and
the US had no hope of matching it; further, there were strong
indications 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 move to a strategy of "assured

The group lobbied Reagan to approve a space-based defense in which
atomic explosions would generate an X-ray laser that would destroy
Soviet missiles 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; but Reagan, FitzGerald reports, had enough sense
to say he wanted to check with his secretary of defense before making
any decision.

The precise origin of the March 1983 speech in which Reagan called for
an anti-missile defense is shrouded in conflicting
memories. FitzGerald writes 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 nuclear freeze were
attacking the administration both in America and in Europe.  Watkins
had lunch with Teller and drafted a proposal for strategic defense as
an alternative to mutual assured destruction.

Watkins apparently thought of SDI as a research program. Robert
McFarlane, the White House national security adviser, thought more
cynically that it would be "the greatest sting operation in history,"
a nonexistent defense that could be traded for real Soviet
concessions. But Reagan took the idea seriously, and to the
astonishment of officials, including Secretary of State George Shultz,
on March 23, 1983, called upon America's scientists to devise a
defense against ballistic missiles.

>From then on, enthusiasm and wishful thinking overwhelmed common
sense.  As George W. Ball wrote in these pages in 1985, "Although the
project clearly 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 almost as unpatriotic. America could
invent a defense because America could invent anything. Scoffers were
reminded that it had once been predicted that aviation was impossible;
the existence of airplanes was then cited as proof that a space-based
anti-missile defense was possible. One of FitzGerald's most intriguing
passages discusses how Star Wars evokes an almost religious 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 with the mission of bringing light to the world. That
foreigners had the ability to attack America from the skies was in
itself a pollution of this Eden.  By calling for a defense that would
make nuclear weapons 'impotent and obsolete,"' Reagan was, Harak
writes, "holding out the promise that America might once again become
an invulnerable sanctuary, its sacred soil inviolate, as it was in the
mythic past; then the nation, unsullied, could once again undertake
its divinely ordained mission to the world."

This may seem, as FitzGerald acknowledges, far-fetched. But only some
sort of blind faith accounts for the persistence of Star Wars'
staunchest backers. Repeatedly, over the past twenty years, Star Wars
advocates have acted as though the technology for their defense system
already exists, or could be developed in a short time, and that an
effective defense is only thwarted by lack of national will. Even
today, long after the Soviet Union has vanished, Congress has passed a
resolution stating that it is national policy to deploy a strategic
anti-missile defense, notwithstanding the fact that no such defense
exists and no prototype has ever passed a realistic test.


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 1986 is a nearly impossible task; aides were not sure whether
Reagan had offered to give up nuclear missiles or all nuclear weapons,
and Reagan himself gave conflicting stories of what had
happened. FitzGerald also gives as good an explanation as we may ever
find about strategic nuclear theory, a subject 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
warheads would blow each other up rather than destroy, the silos. It
is strange to recall that there was once a serious proposal to keep
missiles in motion on a "racetrack" that would cover much of Utah and
Nevada. The missiles might have survived Soviet attack, but the idea
did not survive opposition from the Mormon Church.

Within the Reagan administration, there was no agreed vision of
strategic defense. Though McFarlane saw it as a sting, Reagan himself
envisioned an 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 defending 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 his close
adviser Richard Perle started out as skeptics of SDI and later turned
into its staunch supporters.

But then, in a countervailing movement, attitudes toward the Soviet
Union 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) jeered at him. FitzGerald gives a telling summary
of some of these misjudgments: "He professed to see in Mr. Gorbachev's
eyes an end to the Soviet goal of world dominance," [William] Safire
of the New York Times wrote scornfully.  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 political

Even Reagan's successor, George Bush, professed skepticism about the
Soviet 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 the system created by Lenin and
Stalin-not from any effort on the part of the Reagan
administration. Without Gorbachev, however, the Soviet Union might
have survived for many more years, for the system, though on the
decline, was nowhere near collapse. It was Gorbachev's efforts to
reverse the decline and to modernize his country that knocked the
props out from under the system. The revolution was in essence a
series of decisions made by one man, and it came as a surprise
precisely because it did not follow from a systemic breakdown.

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 in the memoirs of the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Ot
pervovo litsa (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 own 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 give: a 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.
His only foreign posting was in Dresden, East Germany, in the
mid-1980s but even that exposure to a European Communist country gave
his wife, Ludmila, grounds to complain about the empty shelves she
found when she returned to Leningrad. Similarly, the origin of the
Soviet Union's collapse may partly lie in the automobile tour that
Gorbachev and his wife made through Italy in the early 1960s, which
allowed them to see that even Italian villagers, residents of a
country that had been defeated in World War II, lived better 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 America 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 research and to decide this year whether to
proceed with deployment of a system that 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
attacking the United States; that is, instead of spending a fortune in
a vain quest to develop tanks to counter our tanks or jet fighters to
oppose ours, they will resort to unconventional warfare, poison gas,
or other weapons that circumvent existing defenses.

If "rogue" states are clever enough to develop asymmetrical weapons,
they should be clever enough not to try to attack the US by spending
money now on a missile that might or might not penetrate a prospective
anti-missile 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 beefing 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
successful interception of a mock warhead last October used fewer
decoys than might be 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 and the kill vehicle onto a collision
course. Yet SDI proponents, mostly Republican congressmen, insist on a
decision to deploy even in the absence 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 field the system
without adequate evaluation. "This is driving the program to be
'schedule' rather than 'event' driven," he wrote. This "pattern" of
forcing 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

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 limited system threatens to vitiate China's nuclear deterrent, a
force of about twenty intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear
warheads. NMD may never work, but China, to keep its deterrent, cannot
wait to find out.  It 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 of 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 have 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 we once used, will certainly regard it as

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 will turn outer space into a new battlefield, increase the
risks of catastrophic conflict, and enlarge man's ability to destroy
civilization," he wrote in 1985. As it turned out, SDI went nowhere
and, for reasons of its own, the Soviet Union surrendered. National
Missile Defense is just another of those Washington scams that let
pseudopatriots invent threats, wave the flag, and pick the taxpayers'
pockets. FitzGerald has provided a superb guide to how one of the most
grandiose of these fantasies was concocted. We shall have them with us


1 Public Affairs, April 2000.

2 The New York Review, April 11,1985, PP. 38-44.

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