Star Wars II: Here We Go Again | The Nation


Star Wars II: Here We Go Again

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A Smile and a Shoeshine

About the Author

Michelle Ciarrocca
Michelle Ciarrocca is the senior research associate of the arms-trade project at the New School University's World...
William D. Hartung
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation and a member of...

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When Reagan gave his March 1983 Star Wars speech, in which he pledged to launch a program designed to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," he was acting primarily on the advice of Edward Teller, the infamous "father of the H-bomb." In closed-door meetings organized by the conservative businessmen in Reagan's kitchen Cabinet, Teller sold Reagan on a new nuclear doctrine of "assured survival" based on the alleged technical wonders of his latest brainchild, the X-ray laser. As New York Times science writer William Broad pointed out in his 1992 book, Teller's War, the X-ray laser was largely a figment of Teller's imagination, composed of scientific speculation, wishful thinking and outright deception. But Reagan was buying into the concept of missile defense, not the details, so he forged ahead unaware of these inconvenient facts, his enthusiasm reinforced by his desire to counter the nuclear freeze movement.

But, as Frances FitzGerald shows in her new book, Way Out There in the Blue (the title derives from Arthur Miller's line in Death of a Salesman in which he describes Willy Loman as "a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine"), Reagan's Star Wars proposal was more than just a political con game; it was also a potent symbol that served radically different purposes for the different factions within his Administration. For hard-liners like Caspar Weinberger, Richard Perle and Frank Gaffney--a Perle protégé who went on to found his own pro-Star Wars think tank, the Center for Security Policy--Reagan's missile defense plan offered a chance to promote their two main goals: sustaining the Reagan military buildup and thwarting progress on US/Soviet arms control. For White House political strategists, the Star Wars plan was a way to boost Reagan's flagging popularity ratings, which had plummeted in the face of the deepest recession since the thirties and a growing fear that the President's aggressive anti-Soviet stance was moving the world to the brink of a nuclear confrontation.

The most constructive response to the Star Wars speech within Reagan's inner circle came from his Secretary of State, George Shultz. Rather than trying to convince Reagan of the manifold flaws in his pet project, Shultz treated the Star Wars speech as an opportunity to press Reagan to engage in his first serious discussions with Soviet leaders on nuclear weapons issues. Shultz found an unlikely ally in Paul Nitze, the old cold warrior who was appointed as a special envoy to the US/Russian nuclear talks at Shultz's request. Nitze honed in on the fatal flaw that has plagued all missile defense schemes to date, which is that it is much cheaper to overwhelm a defensive system with additional warheads or decoys than it is to expand the defensive capability to meet these new threats. As a result, Shultz and Nitze were able to prevail over the Weinberger/Perle faction and persuade Reagan to endorse historic agreements to eliminate medium-range nuclear weapons from Europe and implement substantial cuts in long-range weapons under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Star Wars was a security blanket that allowed Reagan to engage in serious negotiations with the "evil empire" without being perceived as some sort of weak-kneed liberal arms controller among the conservatives who formed his core constituency.

When George Bush took office in January 1989, Reagan's Star Wars fantasy was rapidly overtaken by the reality of sharp reductions in the US and Soviet nuclear forces. Both sides ratified the START I arms reduction pact and followed up with a START II deal that called for cutting US and Soviet strategic arsenals to one-third their Reagan-era levels. On a broader front, the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the dissolution of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 made spending billions on a high-tech scheme to defend against Soviet missiles seem irrelevant and absurd. Despite the decline of the Soviet "threat," however, the Bush Administration and Congress continued to cough up $3-$4 billion per year for missile defense. The project's new focus was protection against an accidental nuclear attack.

Soon yet another rationale appeared in the form of the "rogue state" strategy, developed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, and based on the notion that the United States should be prepared to fight two heavily armed regional powers like Iraq and North Korea simultaneously. In the 1991 Gulf War Saddam Hussein came to personify the rogue-state threat; Iraqi missile attacks on Tel Aviv and a devastating direct hit on a US military barracks in Saudi Arabia prompted calls for more effective defenses against medium-range ballistic missiles.

But even that was not enough to sustain enthusiasm for a major new program. A few months after Clinton took office in January 1993, Defense Secretary Les Aspin proclaimed the Star Wars program dead (though the Pentagon continued to spend $3-$4 billion per year on missile defense research).

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