Key personal & political events

1983 Mar 23 We
Shultz (George)

Cold War: Reagan’s Star Wars initiative (Shultz memoirs)

Document type: commentary
Document kind: Memoirs
Venue: -
Source: George Shultz Turmoil & Triumph
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Assigned to the date Reagan delivered his Star Wars speech.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2,928 words
Themes: Defence (arms control), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states)

The Reaction

It was a stunning and dramatic speech. It expressed a deep vision: we had painted ourselves into a corner with the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, and the president proposed a way out. Its bottom line was honest: a research program aimed at finding out how to defend against the threat of strategic ballistic missiles. And it was responsible: we would pursue it “consistent with our obligations of the ABM Treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies.” The BBC called the speech “skillful,” calculated to demonstrate a commitment to seek a “way out” of the arms race.

The next day, we were assessing the immediate reaction. The Soviets were swift and negative. Perhaps they were apprehensive that the president was really on to something. Congressional opinion was mixed. The atmosphere at the White House the previous night had been thoughtful. [end p1] Zbigniew Brzezinski said he wished he had heard the speech before he had read it, “The president is so much more convincing orally.”

By late afternoon, I compared notes with Clark. “A lot of people,” I told him, “are saying that technology should be changing our thought patterns. The president said the same thing last night. The instinct is right. We at State should have been cut in earlier.” I told him, “If we hadn't reacted vigorously, the president would be out on an impossible limb. I know the interagency process is full of leaks, but we have to manage broader consultation on a secure basis.” Clark didn't say much, but he seemed to agree.

Over at the White House, I found that the president was pleased with the response to his speech. I had to agree that the concept put forth was that technology had overtaken the validity of our current strategic thinking. “Let's hope the president's instincts are right,” I said when I returned.

People chose sides fast. Despite a mainstream of thoughtful discussion, people all along the political spectrum seemed determined to exaggerate the actual words of the speech for the purpose of either supporting or vilifying it.

Advocates of the Strategic Defense Initiative surrounded it with exaggeration, expounding “an impenetrable shield.” Opponents of the concept mounted a massive publicity campaign to argue, in effect, that any thought of trying to deviate from Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as the sanctified nuclear strategy was itself mad. The critics and the Soviets both denounced the president. Skeptics said it was not a strategic defense initiative but “a pipe dream, a projection of fantasy into policy,” as the New York Times editorialized on March 27. “Star Wars,” the press dubbed it.

The battle lines for a long and bitter debate between the administration and Congress were drawn. President Reagan issued an executive order on March 25, 1983, in which he instructed Bill Clark to supervise an “intensive effort” to define a long-term research and development program for the system. Critics of the president pointed to Article V, Section I, of the ABM Treaty, in which “Each Party undertakes not to develop, test, or deploy ABM systems.” The president's proposal would violate the treaty, they claimed, because the line between research and development (the term found in the treaty) was not clear. On that same day, I instructed the State Department's legal adviser, Davis Robinson, to take a serious look at the ABM Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty and to produce a solid paper on the treaty implications of the president's Strategic Defense Initiative.

The president's speech was an undeniable success with the public at large. It provided a potent argument against the increasingly forceful nuclear freeze movement – and against those who argued that the Reagan administration was heedlessly taking the nation down the path to nuclear [end p2] disaster. Many Americans found the idea of a strategic defense shield a more appealing means of reducing the threat of a nuclear war than the idea of a mere nuclear freeze. And SDI spoke to traditional pride in American technological prowess while holding out the possibility at least of a country protected by a strategic defense rendering us less vulnerable to foreign powers in the twentieth-century world of space, just as two oceans had shielded us in the nineteenth-century world of sea power.

But President Reagan's speech was less successful when it came to persuading foreign leaders. The kind of consultation needed to explain, reassure, and seek support from them had not been possible, given such short notice. The White House, I was told, had briefed a few foreign leaders on the basis of the early, extravagant drafts. The very aspect of the speech that made it appealing to the broad spectrum of the American audience – the call for a shield – made it frightening to our allies, who feared that an America protected by a nuclear shield might be unwilling to fight the Soviets to protect Europe. The image of “Fortress America” leaped to their minds immediately, as it had initially to mine.

Most bitterly, the speech did not persuade the experts in nuclear strategy. Proponents of deterrence responded negatively to the president's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons; in their calculus, any ability to defend our population at large would raise the specter of an American first strike at the Soviet Union and a subsequent Soviet inability to retaliate effectively. The nuclear balance would be broken.

The new Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, said that Reagan's “new conception” would heighten the arms race and that the United States had embarked upon “an extremely dangerous path.” Tass called the speech an attempt to violate the ABM Treaty and achieve strategic superiority for the United States. In an interview with reporters on March 29, President Reagan said that if the United States developed a comprehensive defensive system, a future president could offer to share that defensive technology with the Soviet Union. He said, “In my opinion, if a defensive weapon could be found and developed that would reduce the utility of these [ballistic missiles] or maybe even make them obsolete, then whenever that time came, a President of the United States … could offer to give that same defensive weapon to them to prove to them that there was no longer any need for keeping these missiles. Or with that defense, he could then say to them, ‘I am willing to do away with all my missiles. You do away with all of yours.’”

[Footnote: As quoted in the New York Times, March 30, 1983, p. A14.]

The speech lit up the boards. The cover of Time magazine on April 4, 1983, depicted a determined president against a Buck Rogers backdrop of death rays in space. Newsweek's cover read “Star Wars” and followed with “Will Space Be the Next Battleground?” For all the uproar, one point [end p3] began to sink in: prior to the president's speech, even the possibility that the United States might seriously seek to defend itself from nuclear attack seemed outlandish. After President Reagan's speech, what had seemed “outlandish” became the agenda for debate.

Whose Vision Was SDI?

Whose vision was the Strategic Defense Initiative? I had been surprised by the idea. Bill Clark, Bud McFarlane, Cap Weinberger, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been given an earlier preview than had I of what was on the president's mind. But their performance at the moment of decision and during the debate over the president's dramatic speech led me to conclude that none of them had investigated or really thought through the president's proposal. The Joint Chiefs had supported the idea back in February but were taken by surprise with the timing of the announcement and some of the sweeping language in initial drafts.

The truth of SDI's origin was simple: the vision came from Ronald Reagan. For years he had felt that there must be something better than our long-standing nuclear policy of Mutual Assured Destruction. A few scientists and close associates had discussed the concept with him over the years, and he had made the idea his own. Physicist Edward Teller later told me that in 1967, when Ronald Reagan had just been elected governor of California, Reagan came to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for a briefing on a topic of Teller's research: how to defend against nuclear attack by using nuclear explosives. Reagan listened intently, asked many questions, but made no comments pro or con. This may have become the first gleam in Ronald Reagan's eye of what later became the Strategic Defense Initiative.

I later learned, too, of another pivotal event that had shaped the president's thinking. In July 1979, Reagan visited the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. He was accompanied by Martin Anderson, an economist and adviser to Reagan and later his counselor on domestic affairs, and a screenwriter-friend, Douglas Morrow. As Anderson later recounted the story to me, they walked through massive steel doors several feet thick into what amounted to an underground city carved out of Cheyenne Mountain. After a series of briefings in various rooms making up this maze, they were ushered into the command center, “a huge and cavernous room with a large display at one end showing the United States and the airspace around our country and an array of consoles attended by the men and women on duty.” Here, they were told, ballistic missiles and other intruders into our airspace would be tracked. “You could not help but be impressed – it was awesome – with this massive center for command and control of our forces [end p4] in the event of nuclear attack,” Anderson told me. At the end of the tour, he asked Commanding General James Hill what would happen if a Soviet SS-18 hit within a few hundred yards of the steel front doors. Without a moment's hesitation, the general answered, “It would blow us away.” Reagan was incredulous. “What can we do about it?” he asked. The answer was that we could track it, but we couldn't do anything to stop it. Reagan shook his head, deeply disturbed that America had no means of defense against nuclear attack. He was clearly stunned. “There must be something better than this,” he said. The impression this experience made on him was indelible.

A few days after the visit, Anderson, a jack-of-all-trades in the early stages of the presidential campaign, was asked by John Sears, then Reagan's campaign manager, to draft some thoughts on foreign policy and national security. In his “Policy Memorandum No. 3, Reagan for President,” Anderson wrote:

Develop a Protective Missile System. During the early 1970s there was a great debate about whether or not this country should build an anti-ballistic missile system. The ABM lost, and is now prohibited by SALT agreements. But perhaps it is now time to seriously reconsider the concept. To begin with such a system concentrates on defense, on making sure that enemy missiles never strike U.S. soil. And that idea is probably fundamentally far more appealing to the American people than the questionable satisfaction of knowing that those who initiated an attack against us were also blown away. Moreover, the installation of an effective protective missile system would also prevent even an accidental missile from landing.

“If it could be done,” he concluded, “it would be a major step toward redressing the military balance of power, and it would be a purely defensive step.”

This idea was never used during the campaign. Mike Deaver and John Sears regarded the word “nuclear” to be as alarming to voters as the words “social security.” Nevertheless, in July 1980, the Republican national convention, controlled by Ronald Reagan, pledged in its platform to proceed with “vigorous research and development of an effective anti-ballistic missile system, such as is already at hand in the Soviet Union, as well as more modern ABM technologies.” Even more to the point, Reagan entered the White House with an idea in his mind that he had first encountered in 1967 and that had been jolted back into his consciousness in 1979. He was loath to accept the answer given him at NORAD that America's only options in the face of nuclear attack were to do nothing or retaliate massively. He felt some sort of defense against nuclear weapons must be better. In fact, by 1983, research in the fields of computer science and infrared sensors and some other advances in technology had laid the groundwork for a fundamental shift in thinking.

[end p5]

After Reagan became president, I later learned, a small group had been set to work secretly in the White House in September 1981. Ed Meese acted as its convener.

[Footnote: Included at one time or another were Martin Anderson, businessman Karl Bendetsen, retired General Daniel Graham (who formed a group called High Frontier to lobby for strategic defense), Edward Teller, Jay Keyworth, businessmen Jacquelin Hume and Bill Wilson, as well as Jim Jenkins and Edwin Thomas, assistants to Meese and Bill Clark.]

Anderson's notes of a meeting on September 9, 1981, summarize succinctly: “Shift from offense to defense; move to space, get copy of treaty, go with ABM defense.” The project percolated along over the next year. Teller, among others, kept pushing.

In December 1982, at one of the president's periodic meetings with the Joint Chiefs, he had asked them whether they thought a system of strategic defense was feasible. After a few days' consideration, their answer was that with today's technology, there was genuine promise.

On a snowy February 11, the day before my first intimation from the president of what was in his mind, the Joint Chiefs, with Cap Weinberger, Bill Clark, and Bud McFarlane in attendance, gave the president further encouragement and a supportive report. McFarlane later told me that Jim Watkins, chief of naval operations, had taken the lead in advocating an investment in research about strategic defense.

But all along, the creation of what became the Strategic Defense Initiative was the vision of Ronald Reagan. The visit to Cheyenne Mountain had made a deep impact. Once he was sold on this idea, he stuck with it and looked for ways to persuade others that his idea was right. It was a Reagan characteristic that I would observe again and again on important occasions.

Ronald Reagan had visionary ideas. In pursuing them, he displayed some of his strongest qualities: an ability to break through the entrenched thinking of the moment to support his vision of a better future, a spontaneous, natural ability to articulate the nation's most deeply rooted values and aspirations, and a readiness to stand by his vision regardless of pressure, scorn, or setback. At the same time, he could fall prey to a serious weakness: a tendency to rely on his staff and friends to the point of accepting uncritically – even wishfully – advice that was sometimes amateurish and even irresponsible. There was potential greatness in the idea of strategic defense. There were also flaws in the way it was initially proposed. Despite the controversy at the time, the extravagant launching of the Strategic Defense Initiative gave the proposal a special visibility that dramatically caught the attention of the Soviets.

SDI was to become a dominant issue throughout the 1980s. First was the question of its credibility as a strategic factor. Would it really work and how? When Ronald Reagan first heard of the SDI idea, it was linked to the use of nuclear explosions: the best countermeasure against nuclear warhead missiles seemed at the time to be the X-ray laser, itself driven by [end p6] a nuclear explosion. But the president did not want to accept that; at the core of his vision was his deep unease about nuclear weapons. (Later, in fact, nonnuclear approaches were developed that suited him far better.)

Second, SDI would become the focus of an increasingly bitter domestic debate over strategic doctrine, as opponents of SDI in Congress sought further to enshrine Mutual Assured Destruction and a reading of the ABM Treaty that would render any effort to build strategic defenses against nuclear attack impossible.

And third would be the role of SDI in arms control negotiations. Bud McFarlane later told me that he was deeply concerned about strategic instability and distressed that the failure of “dense pack” left us without a basing mode for our only modern land-based strategic missile. We therefore were more vulnerable and less able to deter; we were also without an important bargaining chip in the START talks. McFarlane supported the project, he said, not so much on the real prospect of success in strategic defense but as a way of giving the scientific community money and inspiration to get going, thereby getting the Soviets' attention to arms control. In this sense, he saw SDI as a “bargaining chip” in the broadest sense. Others were deeply committed to strategic defense and believed that the program would succeed. To some, this meant that SDI should never be mentioned in negotiations; to others, negotiations seemed a way of preserving the concept from being erased by its critics.

Ronald Reagan said that the Strategic Defense Initiative would never be a bargaining chip. In our subsequent negotiations with the Soviets, the integrity of the basic research and development program was never compromised. But SDI proved to be of deep concern to the Soviets. General Secretary Andropov's reaction had been immediate. The Soviets were genuinely alarmed by the prospect of American science “turned on” and venturing into the realm of space defenses. The Strategic Defense Initiative in fact proved to be the ultimate bargaining chip. And we played it for all it was worth.