On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech that horrified the liberal establishment of the time: his call for a Strategic Defense Initiative.
Ronald Reagan was not your typical politician. The only president born and raised in Illinois (yes, Lincoln, Grant, and Obama moved to Illinois as adults, but only Ronald Reagan grew up there), he came to politics with a heartland sensibility: do what makes sense, do what’s right; don’t worry about what the elites from the Ivy League or Foggy Bottom insist upon.
Reagan came to party activism late in life, running for public office for the first time in his successful 1966 campaign for the California governorship, after having moved there at 26 and making his career in various aspects of entertainment, as a film and television actor, longtime president of the Screen Actors Guild, and corporate spokesman for General Electric. Only at 55, therefore, did he hold his first political office; perhaps that too helps to explain his approach to political problems, an approach that we today refer to as “thinking outside of the box.”
A Private Citizen
Long before he entered politics, he was a partisan in the ideological struggle against communism. As a young actor, he joined Olivia de Havilland and so many other good actors of the 1930s and 40s to oppose the efforts of communists to take over the film industry. Derided as outlandish exaggerators at the time, Russian records that came to light after the fall of the Soviet Union proved virtually every accusation of the Right at the time to have been on target. Reagan was keenly aware of the threat at the time, and even as he studied more about economics and other aspects of political philosophy, concern for the place of America in the world, especially in its balance of power against the Soviets across the sea, remained always at the forefront of his mind, even decades before there was practically much that he could do about it.
As a conventional power, Communist Russia was certainly strong. They had a huge landmass, and an ever-growing number of satellite nations to add to their geographical footprint. As they conquered or allied with countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, they gained power in the United Nations, commanding a huge block of both admittedly and quietly communist delegates. And they had of course a massive military, with soldiers, tanks and ammunition sufficient to crush any opponent short of the United States.
Mutually Assured Destruction
But the special power of Communist Russia was in its dominance in nuclear weaponry. They had thousands of warheads, and so many means of delivery – short-range ballistic missiles, medium-range, long-range. Their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) could threaten us, just as ours could threaten them. With thousands armed and aimed in opposition, the American elites cheered this dangerous dance. They called it Mutually Assured Destruction, and were proud of it.
The theory’s advocates were even proud of its acronym – MAD – as they maintained that anyone who would start a nuclear war under such circumstances would have to be mad to do so. But Ronald Reagan, even as a television actor and corporate spokesman, thought the name appropriate for the opposite reason: it would be madness to advocate such a system, madness to be proud of it, madness to think it good.
Every other weapon in the history of the world has naturally inspired some defense against it. The sword was countered by the shield; the spear and arrow countered by chainmail and armor. The cannon was countered by the wall; the battering ram was countered by the moat. Even such modern horrors as the bullet have had their Kevlar vests; mustard gas was countered by gas masks.
But there was to be no such defense against ICBMs. That was the beauty of them, in the eyes of the elites; with no possible defense, there would never be wars between us, since the prospect of an exchange of ICBMs would be too horrible to imagine. Conservatives, particularly their leader-to-be, Ronald Reagan, believed such a position was stark raving MADness.
There were defenses, in fact – in the early days, Nike sites were the pitifully few locations where we had Anti-Ballistic Missiles, ready to intercept incoming ICBMs to protect our nation. Reagan believed that we should have been building Nike sites or similar defenses all along, expanding our defenses as we expanded our offenses.
Defense Is The Norm!
Just as ancient and medieval armies always assigned their soldiers both swords and shields, and built their forts with walls as well as cannons and archery towers, we should have applied the same approach to ICBMs all along. Build an ICBM site for offense, build an interceptor site for defense. But they never had, and it was certifiable madness.
This is where the elites had gotten warped – they were so impressed by the damage that a single ICBM could do, they came up with a way to use fear of the weapon as an imagined defensive measure of its own. If we fear their missiles, and they fear our missiles, then we’ll never fight and the missiles will never be used. Brilliant.
But Ronald Reagan watched the scene and saw the failure of that logic; it hadn’t worked to our advantage after all! Despite the lack of a direct nuclear war between our two nations, there was constant war all over the world, either directly or indirectly instigated by the Soviets.
The Real History of MAD
The Soviets spent the 1950s, 60s, and 70s sending their surrogates around the world, fomenting civil wars without blatant Soviet participation. They just sent advisors, under the radar – they furnished the equipment, the ammunition, the rhetoric, the methodology. They conquered country after country, large and small, and the United States didn’t lift a finger to help the poor people of those targeted third world lands. Why? Fear of MAD.
Hungary rose up in 1956 and tried to declare their independence from the Soviets. The Soviet tanks rolled in, and America did nothing.
Similarly, Czechoslovakia rose up in 1967, in that glorious flash of bravery known as The Prague Spring. Again the Soviet tanks rolled in, and America did nothing.
These too were the casualties of MAD, a doctrine of nihilism that ensured security only for the Moscow politburo for thirty years. They would dare things they would never have dared without an American fear of direct war with Russia. The politburo could topple countries as close as Grenada, Cuba, and Nicaragua, without the slightest fear of American reprisal. We might broadcast messages to Cuba on Radio Marti, but we would never put our boots on the ground to face the Russian advisors on the field of battle, especially not since the Kennedy administration’s loss of nerve at the Bay of Pigs.
A New President, A New Approach
This was the history that Ronald Reagan inherited when he was elected president in 1980. He moved into the Oval Office and promptly changed American policy from one of Détente (sit back and watch while the Soviets take over the world) to one of Rollback (where the Soviets have placed advisors, we’ll place advisors… where Soviets send arms and funds, so will we).
And thus it was that the 1980s became the period of challenge to the Communist juggernaut. We funded Contras in Nicaragua, UNITA in Angola, Renamo in Mozambique. Prior administrations had given them lip service, with quiet aid from the CIA, and the results were minimal. The Reagan administration brought the opposition out of the closet and put it on the front page. President Reagan wore a button – “I’m a Contra Too” in photos emblazoned on the front pages of newspapers. America was now the vocal advocate of freedom across the globe; America was now standing up to stop the Communists at last.
Perhaps Reagan was remembering an old magazine – the first issue of National Review – in which conservatism was declared in opposition to statism for now and always… in which we on the Right declared that, even as the red dialectic appeared to have its momentum, we would forever “Stand athwart history, yelling STOP!”
So it is in this context that we should look at Reagan’s 1983 speech. Three aspects of his speech are largely misunderstood, and all are critical to its understanding.
Technology, Commitment, and Certainty
First, the technology was there. The first attack by the left was that Reagan was proposing some radical fictional technology from the movies, like the outer space gunfights of “Star Wars.” But SDI was a proposed mixture of various defenses against incoming missiles, most of which were already long established. The Nike sites had been around for over twenty years; we had numerous kinds of missiles in design and even in implementation that could deflect or destroy an incoming missile. We just needed more of them. The project did include some new technology – but these space-based stages of the plan were based on existing satellite technology already in use. We had flown rockets to the moon since the 60s, we had docked spaceships together since the 70s; the hard work had already been done. All that was needed was the funding and the commitment to build a defense for modern time.
Second, the commitment was there. The Soviets had grown complacent, believing that the USA would never seriously challenge any of their acquisitions, out of our own fear that a nuclear war would destroy our own nation. With the ramped up funding of freedom fighters all over the world, the USA was now showing the Soviets that we meant business. We were willing to supplement our own nuclear arsenal with a defensive implementation of equal strength, and the Russians were terrified. If we really meant it, then their plans to slowly take over the world, so successful for thirty years, would be foiled if they couldn’t stop us. So they tried to talk us out of it, again and again, but we wouldn’t budge. Now for the first time, we had commitment that they couldn’t match. They could never afford to do what we could afford. Reagan’s theory that we could outspend them was right on target.
Third, the certainty was sufficient. This is the level of analysis that most eludes the understanding of the left. The Left’s position was always based on MAD. We can’t be sure that we’ll be able to deflect every incoming rocket, and if just one gets through, that’s still millions dead, and it’s unacceptable, so let’s forget the whole thing. The Left assumed that only absolute certainty – an ability to be positive that we could destroy 100% of incoming missiles, no matter what – would be sufficient to justify the project.
No other defense has ever had such an expectation placed upon it! Should we not issue Kevlar vests because a policemen might still be shot in the extremities? Should we not wall in our city because some cannonballs might clear the walls and find a target? Should we not issue gas masks because some of them might be defective and let some poison in?
In any other argument, such an insistence on perfection would be laughed away. But the Left insisted that if we couldn’t guarantee to repel every single incoming bomb, we shouldn’t do it at all.
Ronald Reagan, however, knew full well what his defense plan would do to the Soviet plan. The Soviets had always assumed they would win a first strike nuclear war. If we have adequate defenses to take out the majority of their missiles, then we would be stronger – infinitely stronger – in our second strike. And that, they could never win. The Strategic Defense Initiative made all the difference.
Even if the communist-funded “peace movement” in America in the 1980s didn’t acknowledge it, even if they still don’t believe it today… even if they still deny the fact that their movements were funded by Moscow all along… the fact remains that it was SDI that made the Soviets change their entire strategy in the 1980s.
Ronald Reagan saw what nobody else on the scene could see. He recognized an opening that no one else imagined: that we didn’t even have to take the fight to them – if we just threatened to, and showed we were willing, they could never afford it.
With the economic boom spurred by Ronald Reagan’s policies, we could afford to build more Nike sites and tear up the idiotic ABM Treaty so foolishly signed a decade before. We could bring the Soviets to the table and win concessions from them for a change. After decades of rolling over, we were now rolling back.
The evidence is in. With this change in attitude, the Soviets began to buckle at last. Their position in the world could not continue in an era of an ascendant United States; they tried Perestroika, and Glasnost… they tried a charm offensive with Mikhail and Raisa. Nothing worked. Communist Russia was the country headed for the dustbin of history; America would rise again.
We do still need a Strategic Defense Initiative. The fact that hundreds of nuclear missiles still exist, all over the world, aimed at us, without an adequate wall of our own to repel them, remains a terrible indictment to the political class that followed the Reagan era.
But nobody can deny the proof of history. None can still deny that Ronald Reagan was right, thirty years ago, as he launched a foreign policy and national defense initiative, as much a PR blast as anything else, that rocked the Kremlin to its core and announced to the world that the United States has a right to defend itself, and that no matter what they do, the United States, this greatest nation on God’s green earth, is here to stay.
Copyright 2013 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. A movement conservative during the 1980s, he once served as president of the Ethnic American Council, a Chicago-based civic group that promoted the many groups of freedom fighters from captive nations around the world, doing its small part to contribute to the Rollback of Communism that the world so desperately needs.
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