There were some honest arguments on the other side. It wasn’t all Ted Kennedy–like rhetoric. Maybe the best argument was that an American missile-defense program might spook the Soviets into launching a first strike.
A great phrase of the day was “militarize the heavens.” “Do not militarize the heavens!” You could see it on bumper stickers, you could hear it out of the mouths of Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, and a thousand others. Reagan and his minions (an Obama phrase) were out to “militarize the heavens.”
That made a defense against nuclear weapons sound so very bad: These right-wing crazies were “militarizing the heavens.” Who wants his heavens militarized?
The Left had a problem — a fairly substantial problem. They couldn’t quite figure out whether they opposed SDI because it would work or because it wouldn’t work. They talked out of both sides of their mouths. Sometimes they were embarrassed about this. Reagan supporters teased them about it a lot.
There was one group of people who took SDI very seriously: the rulers in the Kremlin. In a 1985 letter to Krulak — later than the one quoted above — Reagan spoke of “the Soviets and their hysteria over the SDI.” He said, “I wonder why some of our own carping critics who claim SDI is an impractical wasted effort don’t ask themselves, if it’s no good how come the Russians are so upset about it?”
Some on the left conceded that SDI could be a useful “bargaining chip.” Reagan never saw it that way: He swore over and over that he would never bargain it away, that missile defense was too important to the future of mankind.
Here he is in a letter to Larry Beilenson, August 1, 1986: “We will not allow SDI to become a bargaining chip. My own view is that we may be able to develop a defensive shield so effective that we can use it to rid the world once and for all of nuclear missiles. Then — since we all know how to make them we preserve SDI as we did our gas masks in the event a madman comes along some day and secretly puts some together.”
As you see, Reagan had a utopian streak (to go with his steely realism). We will see this streak again, and talk about it, later in the series.
He cratered the Reykjavik summit, everyone said. This was October 1986. He blew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make steep reductions in nukes, because he refused to give up this stupid Star Wars idea. He clung stubbornly to his fantasy. Thus did he let the world down.
Sam Donaldson said it, the New York Times said it, everyone said it.
As you know, various factors brought down the Soviet Union: factors internal and external. One of them was SDI. A former high-ranking Soviet official, Vladimir Lukhim, said, “It’s clear that SDI accelerated our catastrophe by at least five years.”
Thanks for joining me today, friends, and see you tomorrow.
To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.