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Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Presidency | The Nation

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Ronald Reagan and the Imperial Presidency

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The Trump Card

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Ronnie Dugger
Ronnie Dugger is the author of The Politician, a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and other books and articles, the...

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The fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Johnson’s Great Society agenda should not overlook the travesties of the war. 

A landslide of letters overwhelmed our mailbox in response to Ronnie Dugger's August 16/23 Our Readers and Ronnie Dugger

Now present in Reagan's speeches, and apparently reflecting his convictions, is the idea that the United States should play what he calls its "trump card" with Russia--threatening it with "the possibility of an arms race" by suddenly launching a crash program. Reagan first made this proposal in 1977. According to a U.P.I. story, he said then that Carter has "one trump card that has never been used. We know and the Soviet Union knows that if there is to be an arms race, they can't even get in the same ballpark with us," and Carter should be willing to use the "threat" of a new arms race with the Russians. The "trump card" play stands or falls on the truth of the assumption that the Soviet Union cannot keep pace with the United States in building arms--which is highly dubious. This summer, to The Washington Post, Reagan suggested that an arms buildup by the United States would make sense because Russia cannot divert any more of its funds to arms and would come to the arms-control bargaining table. But Reagan indicated his view most starkly in a 1978 radio broadcast when he said:

The plain truth is we cannot verify whether the Soviets are carrying out the terms of SALT II and it is a falsehood to suggest we can.
   In his June 28 column, journalist Ben Stem summed it up very well: "An unrestrained arms race which the U.S. could not possibly lose given our industrial superiority, or a treaty (SALT II) which says that the arms race is over and that we have lost it." And he asks--"which is worse?"

Reagan did not, on the radio, answer Stem's question, but there is little doubt what his answer would be: An unrestrained arms race is preferable.

Reagan's insistence on a military buildup aimed at U.S. "military superiority" might seem to the Russians to be aimed actually at the attainment of a first-strike capability. In January, Reagan explained extemporaneously, "What I have said is that our defenses must be whatever is necessary to insure that the potential enemy will never dare attack you. Now, if that is equivalence or if that is superiority, you must have the degree to know that you are safe. I could see that if you really strive for an obvious superiority then you may tempt the other side into being afraid and you continue escalating 0n both sides. but...it must be whatever strength is necessary to insure your safety and peace."

The haggle over the words "superiority" and "equivalence'' (or "parity") seems like a nit-pick, but of course is not, because which kind of word one uses conveys momentous intentions and describes technological decisions of awesome import. The Republican platform adopted this summer calls for "overall military and technological superiority over the Soviet Union." Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in August, Reagan apparently pulled back from the full meaning of superiority, saying, "I've called for whatever it takes to be strong enough that no other nation will dare violate the peace. This is what we mean by superiority."

Reagan also seems to believe that the United States could not retaliate effectively if hit by a Russian first strike. This spring he told Business Week, "We need one of two things: either an offensive weapon that would give us a second-strike capability, so if the Soviets made that first strike we'd still have something to retaliate with, and damage them to the point where they'd never want to make the first strike; or some form of defensive weapon, like the lasers we are experimenting with."

Why does Reagan believe that the Russians could risk a first strike? He gave his reasoning in a 1978 radio broadcast, in which he said:

Do the Russians subscribe to our belief in "mutual assured destruction" as a deterrent to war? Apparently we think so, but---just as apparently--the Russians do not. We say "thermonuclear war is unthinkable by either side" The Russians have told their own people that while it would be a calamity, it is not unthinkable; that it very well might happen and if it does, the Soviet Union will survive and be victorious.

For some time Reagan has been saying that Russia is preparing to win a nuclear war. These statements seem to imply, but they do not say, that Russia is planning to make a nuclear first strike. As early as 1975, Reagan said that under SALT II Russia could "make a first strike...with little fear of reprisal." Last year he said, "While we plan to prevent a war, the Soviets plan to win a war." The MX missile system, which Carter has quietly approved, and for which Reagan has also promised sped-up appropriations to get it operational as quickly as possible, may very well be widely perceived, when in place, as giving the United States a first-strike capability. In this very dangerous situation, Reagan is in effect indicating that Russia is planning to commit a first strike against the United States. If he is elected, what argument is to dissuade the Russians from concluding that Reagan is seeking to attain a first-strike capability against them?

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