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Tuesday, June 08, 2004


I don't have much to say about the passing of Ronald Wilson Reagan. Instead, I'll write a little bit about how his life influenced mine (it is my blog after all).

My graduate career (and, thus, my professional life) started in 1983, well into the Reagan presidency.

Ultimately, my dissertation was inspired by the Reagan administration. My thesis focused primarily on missile defenses (and the importance of public audiences in shaping policy), as did a few of my earliest journal articles. One piece, in fact, specifically analyzed a speech delivered by Reagan on March 23, 1983. At the time, this was known as the "Star Wars" speech, even though the President didn't use that term.

In fact, the average listener probably wasn't exactly sure what Reagan was discussing when he turned somewhat ambiguously to strategic defenses. Reagan included the relevant paragraphs at the end of a lengthy speech on "Defense and National Security." Throughout the overwhelming majority of this speech, Reagan outlined the need for elevated defense spending. As you might expect, a great deal of the speech was dedicated to outlining Soviet weaponry. That's how the arms race was justified in the US: they build, so we have to build.

Of course, as in the recent debate about Iraqi WMD, the threats were often inflated.

Here's an interesting quote from the March 23, 1983, speech that might have been useful in the 2002-2003 Iraq debate:
The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor.
Then again, America's actions have long been justified as defensive even when many observers might see them as offensive. In this address, Reagan mentioned US concerns about an airfield in Grenada with a 10,000-foot runway built with Soviet financing. In October of that year, American forces invaded Grenada and deposed Maurice Bishop.

Perhaps you saw the mediocre Clint Eastwood movie about it.

Anyway, back to the March 23 speech. Reagan was accusing the Soviets of "acquiring what can only be considered an offensive military force" and calling for greater American defense forces to counter it. Ultimately, he proposed strategic defenses:
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?

I know this is a formidable, technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of this century. Yet, current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it's reasonable for us to begin this effort. It will take years, probably decades of effort on many fronts. There will be failures and setbacks, just as there will be successes and breakthroughs. And as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response. But isn't it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.

In the meantime, we will continue to pursue real reductions in nuclear arms, negotiating from a position of strength that can be ensured only by modernizing our strategic forces. At the same time, we must take steps to reduce the risk of a conventional military conflict escalating to nuclear war by improving our nonnuclear capabilities.

America does possess -- now -- the technologies to attain very significant improvements in the effectiveness of our conventional, nonnuclear forces. Proceeding boldly with these new technologies, we can significantly reduce any incentive that the Soviet Union may have to threaten attack against the United States or its allies.

As we pursue our goal of defensive technologies, we recognize that our allies rely upon our strategic offensive power to deter attacks against them. Their vital interests and ours are inextricably linked. Their safety and ours are one. And no change in technology can or will alter that reality. We must and shall continue to honor our commitments.

I clearly recognize that defensive systems have limitations and raise certain problems and ambiguities. If paired with offensive systems, they can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy, and no one wants that. But with these considerations firmly in mind, I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

Tonight, consistent with our obligations of the ABM treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies, I'm 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. This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves. We seek neither military superiority nor political advantage. Our only purpose -- one all people share -- is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war.

My fellow Americans, tonight we're launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history. There will be risks, and results take time. But I believe we can do it. As we cross this threshold, I ask for your prayers and your support.

Thank you, good night, and God bless you.
Despite what Christopher Hitchens wrote at Salon, Reagan did not end this speech "with the lame quip, 'May the force be with you.'"

In fact, Reagan apparently used that line when astronauts were about to fly in the space shuttle, which actually seems appropriate. Even Reagan's "evil empire" speech does not use the phrase inspired by that movie. Reagan referred to totalitarians as evil, but did not utter the word "empire" in the address.

And it was Reagan's foes who called the program inspired by the March 23 speech "Star Wars." The administration called the program the Strategic Defense Initiative.

In short, the Reagan legacy is complicated; informed (like the former President was) by myths and half-truths. My coauthored journal article about the "Star Wars" speech argued that it was an excellent response to the nuclear freeze movement, but a poor way to initiate defense policy given the negative reaction that could be expected from significant numbers of "defense intellectuals" and allies. After all, supporters had been proposing "anti-missile missiles" since the Soviets launched Sputnik -- typically in the face of significant opposition that was able for decades to hold off repeated efforts to secure deployment.

Ultimately, the SDI program also died before deployment, but when urged to do so by political leaders, the US body politic still regularly engages in debates about whether to deploy missile defenses. One of the Clinton-Gingrich confrontations that closed the government was partly about the appropriation of funds to deploy missile defenses. Donald Rumsfeld may have been named Bush's Defense Secretary because of his misleading Commission Report that inflated missile threats from proliferants.

You get the idea.

I ultimately broadened my scholarly interests by turning to questions about global environmental politics and international institutions. But the public debates about threats in the nuclear age, and the appropriate US responses to them, are ongoing and interesting.

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