Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ Speech: An Insider’s View

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U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy called it a “reckless ‘Star Wars’ scheme” and the American press agreed, dubbing it (rather dramatically) “The ‘Star Wars’ Speech” after the popular 1977 film by George Lucas. To those of us working in the White House at the time, President Ronald Reagan’s televised speech on March 23, 1983, was a serious and perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to defuse the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The subject of the speech was and is controversial to this day.

The saga began on Feb. 11, 1983, with a historic meeting between Reagan and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Chiefs’ presentation, led by Adm. James Watkins, chief of naval operations, bemoaned the seemingly endless nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union along with the exponential growth in cost and risk. It questioned the morality of the underlying strategic philosophy of mutual assured destruction and, most dramatically, if offered the potential for a new and more stable path for military deterrence — one that emphasized strategic defense. The Joint Chiefs believed that new technologies — primarily related to directed and kinetic energies — had progressed to the point that they deserved serious investment. The president embraced the recommendations enthusiastically. During a prior visit to the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command in 1979, Reagan was astonished to learn that the United States had virtually no defense against a ballistic missile attack and that our survival rested almost solely of our adversary’s fear of a reciprocal offense nuclear response. He was now being offered an opportunity to fundamentally alter this strategic philosophy.

Following the meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Reagan directed that a small cadre of staffers from his National Security Council (NSC) immediately begin preparations for a major speech focused on initiation of a new strategic defense program. He was fearful of a leak and of political pressure from both within and outside the administration that could short-circuit the initiative. Therefore, virtually no one outside the immediate participants in the meeting and a few NSC staffers was aware of the briefing, a condition that remained right up to just a few days before the March 23 speech.

Reagan’s national security adviser, Bill Clark, and Clark’s deputy, Bud McFarlane, led the speech preparation effort with assistance from Clark’s military assistant, Rear Adm. John Poindexter. As a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, I was the director of space and intelligence programs on the NSC staff — this initiative fit within my portfolio and I joined the NSC cadre. Furthermore, in my prior assignment at Air Force headquarters, I had conducted a long-range study of space-based weapons for the chief of staff, which provided me with some unique insight into the subject. On several occasions, I briefed both McFarlane and Poindexter on these results, although I certainly was not the only source of technical and policy input.

This study, by the way, concluded that while directed — laser — energy technologies offered longer-range potential, kinetic energy devices could possibly be more practical in the short term.

In mid-March, the president decided to insert the new initiative (later it was formally called SDI for Strategic Defense Initiative) into his planned televised speech to the nation on March 23 covering the 1984 defense budget. But again he decided to maintain bureaucratic secrecy and to avoid notifying the press. With this decision, efforts in the White House intensified. Drafts of the speech circulated in rapid fire among the NSC staff, with McFarlane as the leader and principal drafter. Poindexter directed the myriad of details related to our efforts to define the broad scope of the initiative and to coordinate it with selected members of the administration. On March 19, McFarlane showed the speech to Jay Keyworth, the president’s science adviser, and asked for his support in coordinating the initiative with the scientific community, especially Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb and more recently a proponent of nuclear X-ray lasers, which he believed had SDI potential. Keyworth agreed and several scientists were invited to the White House for dinner on the night of the speech.

Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger were notified on successive days along with key members of their immediate staffs.

Objections were raised, but those revolved mainly around process (e.g., should our allies receive advance notice) rather than substance.

On the day before the speech and after working almost 24/7 for over a month, I flew to New York City to join my family for a few days off. We watched the speech in our hotel room. Approximately three-quarters of the way through the speech, President Reagan said:

“Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them? Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability? I think we are — indeed, we must! After careful consultation with my advisers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I believe there is a way.

“Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today. What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies? … Tonight, consistent with our obligations under the ABM Treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies, I am taking an important first step. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles.”

We were off and running, but more important work remained. In succeeding weeks, we worked with Department of Defense in setting up the charter of the SDI Organization and selecting Air Force Lt. Gen. Jim Abrahamson as its first director reporting directly to the secretary of defense. An SDI budget exceeding that of the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear bomb in World War II was initially proposed.

From this high point, however, the program’s scope has been significantly reduced over the succeeding years from a space- and ground-based defensive system designed to counter a massive ballistic missile attack to a system that is limited to defense against much smaller attacks, mainly from rogue nations or terrorists. In 1993 the SDI Organization was demoted and renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. The rationale for these changes has been a combination of a reduced strategic threat and a failure of certain technologies (mainly space-based ones) to mature sufficiently to justify deployment. Today’s ground-based ballistic missile defense system owes its existence to investments made during the SDI era.

What about the legacy of the SDI program? Many scientists, politicians and journalists criticized the program from the very beginning. Much of this criticism was justified; however, there was also a misperception among some that in 1983 President Reagan was announcing the imminent deployment of a “Star Wars” system when in fact he was calling for increased investment in defensive technologies — a very major difference. Admittedly, the administration may have perpetuated this misperception as a bargaining chip with the Soviet Union. Which leads to the next point.

Perhaps SDI’s greatest legacy will be its contribution to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. While this point is also controversial to some, it is a fact that at the arms control talks in Reykjavik in 1986, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev proposed that both the United States and the Soviet Union dismantle all ballistic missiles, but only if the United States would cease development of the SDI system. In short, the Soviets were traumatized by the prospect of an enormous escalation in military costs involved in maintaining strategic parity with the United States and the unprecedented burdens these placed on a communist system already struggling under systemic economic, ethnic and political pressures. President Reagan refused to give up SDI and Gorbachev returned from Reykjavik with a renewed commitment to reforming the Soviet system. Eventually, the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 separate countries.

Thirty years later, President Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech remains a historic moment. I was honored and privileged to be a part of it.

After retiring from the Air Force in 1985, Gil Rye held key executive positions in COMSAT Corp., BDM Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp. In 2001, he retired a second time as chief executive of Orbital Imaging Corp. (a precursor to the current DigitalGlobe/GeoEye companies).