by Taylor DinermanThe debate over the role that Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) played in ending the Cold War shows no sign of cooling off. Indeed there is every indication that it will just go on and on, like the debates over how World War One started in 1914 or the ones in France over the “positive role of colonialism”. John O’Sullivan’s new book, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, brings an interesting British perspective to the argument. As a journalist, editor, and sometime assistant to Mrs. Thatcher, he had a front row seat for the UK’s part of the great “Star Wars” battles of the 1980s.
The Space Review
The Space Review
In Britain, as elsewhere, Reagan’s March 1983 speech launching SDI was met with incredulity and not a little disdain. Ted Kennedy notoriously dubbed it “Star Wars”, and few experts outside a small circle of defense enthusiasts understood the profound implications of the President’s question, “Would it not be better to save lives rather than avenge them?” The old, unpalatable choices of Armageddon or arms control suddenly seemed to be out of date.
In the early 1980s the big political conflict in Europe was over the installation of US cruise and Pershing missiles to counter the Soviet SS-20s. The anti-nuclear movement went all out to try and derail the NATO deployment. As O’Sullivan points out the Soviet “‘Peace’strategy had proved to be a brilliant one. It cloaked an important Soviet strategic interest in a multicolored garment woven from environmentalism, religion, pacifism, anarchism, and old fashioned radicalism. At its height it could bring millions into the streets overnight. It reshaped the political culture of the left and thus of countries where the left was culturally dominant. It was so successful that it was imitated by wholesale by the American left in the ‘nuclear freeze’ movement. It could do anything except win elections.”
Thus in Europe, and especially in Great Britain, SDI was not seen as all that important compared to the reality of the Euromissiles scheduled for deployment in the late fall of 1983. Only a few defense experts realized what the real stakes were and they had little to do with the much-ballyhooed research contracts. From the British government’s point of view the implications were ominous. The opposition Labour Party was committed to the idea of unilateral nuclear disarmament and they lost the 1983 election in part due to that fact. Thatcher had expended much political capital convincing her cabinet and the voters to renew Britain’s national nuclear deterrent force by replacing the old Polaris missile submarines with new Trident ones.
Suddenly, her close friend and ally, the President of the United States, announced he was embarking on a program that aimed to make all such weapons “impotent and obsolete.” Like almost all European leaders, she simply did not know what to make of it, but unlike most of them she knew Reagan well enough to know that he had thought the idea through. As O’Sullivan puts it, “As a scientist with a healthy respect for U.S. technology, she never shared the outright scorn for SDI expressed by most European governments and military experts.” One might add that Britain’s experience using American weapons against the Argentines in the 1982 Falklands war probably also had an impact.
While in private she was worried about the possibility that SDI might “decouple” the US from the defense of Europe, she had the good sense to keep her doubts to herself. Europeans who insisted that Soviet missiles be given a free ride towards their US targets could scarcely then turn around and insist that the US put tens of thousands of American lives at stake to stop the Red Army from having a free ride across Western Europe to the Channel and beyond. What she wanted was a missile defense system that would enhance deterrence. One that would create such uncertainty in the minds of the Moscow leadership that their massive investment in offensive nuclear systems would be effectively neutralized.
This was not what her great friend Ronald Reagan had in mind. Throughout the late 1970s his radio commentaries had warned against Soviet nuclear superiority and against the bad deals that the Nixon and Carter administration had negotiated during the SALT process. In 1978 he quoted former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, “The evidence is incontrovertible that the Soviet Union has repeatedly, flagrantly and indeed contemptuously violated the treaties to which we have adhered.” That same year he evoked the possibility of a nuclear war where “…they [the Soviets] lose 5% of their population and we lost 50% or more.”
He must have seen that being stuck in a competition to build more missiles while supposedly trying to achieve arms control deals that would restrain this process, was a fools game. One that the USSR was bound to win. Something had to change, in the short term he knew he had to build up US nuclear forces and to talk with the Soviets at the same time, but neither of these choices satisfied him.
To imagine, as some of his detractors do, that it was his 1979 visit to NORAD in Colorado Springs that showed him that America lacked any sort of missile defense is typical of their attitude towards him, summed up in Clark Clifford’s famous label “amiable dunce”. As O’Sullivan makes clear, “What surprised and upset Reagan at NORAD was the disparity between the excellence of the technology and the modesty of its purpose. If we could track missiles from their launch he asked reasonably, could we not develop a means of halting them?” While O’Sullivan does not mention it, what Reagan had seen was the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites in operation. Their ability to track the heat signature of a missile launch hinted at what might be technically possible.
Reagan did not totally reject arms control: his aim was to enter into the talks from a position of strength. As he saw it, recent administrations had negotiated from weakness, due both to Vietnam and to the constant pressure from Congressional doves to cut the defense budget. More importantly he always thought that the SALT talks were simply not ambitious enough. He wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely, but he also wanted to win the Cold War.
As O’Sullivan reminds us, Reagan had a very simple strategic approach to the Cold War “We win, they lose.” Unlike most Sovietologists and other academic experts, the old actor understood that Communism was a failing economic system. He did grasp of central message of the Communist bloc dissidents, as well as dozens of refugees, and defectors. The Soviet economy was a nightmare that was only really efficient at producing weapons and creating raw military strength.
Meanwhile he knew that the US economy was producing new technologies at a rate the Soviets could never hope to match. While it might be a bit much to say, as O’Sullivan does, that Reagan and Thatcher’s free market policies “midwifed” the information revolution, they certainly gave it an almighty shove in the right direction.
There is of course a lot more to this book than just the SDI story. The sections on Pope John Paul II are eye opening to a non-Catholic like myself. Poland’s struggle for freedom was in its own way just as important as SDI. Elsewhere O’Sullivan sums up in a few short pages why Reagan and Thatcher’s economic policies were so different, although guided by essentially the same philosophy.
Its useful to remember that Reagan’s last years in office were seen by many, including many conservatives, as a failure, due to Iran-Contra and his being overshadowed by Gorbachev. In the light of history, though, we know that his simple goal was achieved: “We won, they lost.”
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See Also: Canadians Leery of 'Missile Defense System' With NORAD