…Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev for the first day of a two-day summit meeting in Reykjavik, and yours truly is now on a luncheon break from a conference here at the Hoover Institution, chaired by former secretary of state George Shultz, that has gathered about 20 participants in the summit. The question that keeps coming up: If (as, for example, the Union of Concerned Scientists insisted, and still insists) the Strategic Defense Initiative was such a ridiculous idea, then why did Gorbachev prove so utterly intent on bottling it up? Why didn’t he just invite Reagan to go right ahead and waste billions on the project? Why did he instead permit the summit to break up, without any agreement, simply because Reagan refused to hinder SDI by confining it to laboratory testing, as the Soviets insisted, for a decade?
As it turns out, there are lots of answers. Some, including Soviet scientist Roald Sadeev, believe Gorbachev himself was persuaded by Soviet physisists that Star Wars would never work—but that he insisted on killing the program because of pressure from the Politburo. This view was seconded by former ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock, who explained that shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union high officials told him that the Politburo was utterly convinced that the Americans would use SDI to place nuclear weapons in space—some even believed we would use space-based lasers to start forest fires in Siberia. Others have argued that Gorbachev was indeed under the sway of American technical prowess—he might not have known whether we could indeed launch a true space shield, but he was worried about where our research would lead. And David Holloway, a historian, has presented the conference with briefing papers in which Gorbachev himself said the Soviet Union simply could not afford to engage in another round of the arms race, which the American development of SDI would certainly commence.
One way or another, what is clear—deliciously clear to your correspondent, who can recall just how the Gipper was mocked for his insistence on the project—SDI had the Soviets utterly unnerved. “SDI,” as Richard Perle told us, “was clearly Gorbachev’s essential objective. I think he’d have given up anything to get that.”