Last month the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s missile defense idea, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), often then called “Star Wars,” passed by fairly quietly. He unveiled it in a relatively brief speech to the nation on March 23, 1983. It was loudly denounced then and for years by the Left as a supposed acceleration of the arms race and a “militarization of the heavens.”
At the time the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was considered sacrosanct, and the cult of arms control firmly rejected any U.S. defense against incoming missiles, leaving no protection against even potentially accidentally launched missiles. That cult preferred continued reliance upon Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), largely crafted during the 1960s under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
Reagan naturally regarded MAD as morally problematic and, although he might dream of a nuclear-free world, he realistically was not willing to place his faith in that dream. Instead, on March 23, 1983, Reagan succinctly asked: “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” He went on: “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?” And he called 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.”
At the 1986 Reykjavik, Iceland summit, Reagan famously walked away from a potentially sweeping arms control agreement with the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev insisted on America’s renouncing missile defense. It was a portrayed as a setback for Reagan. But in fact, his refusal to retreat led not only to an arms control treaty but more importantly helped to ensure Gorbachev’s and the Soviet Union’s demise. As some Soviet officials later admitted, the Soviet Union could not ultimately compete technologically with the U.S. in missile defense technology.
The ABM Treaty remained in place until 2001, when President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. from it, prompting perfunctory criticism from the Russians but not much else. Rudimentary missile defenses have been deployed. North Korea’s latest threats have prompted the Obama administration to announce plans for deploying a system in the Pacific.
It was never entirely clear why the left preferred complete vulnerability to missile attack. The Religious Left in the 1980s, fully committed not only to the Soviet-supported Nuclear Freeze Movement’s attempt to forestall U.S. missile upgrades in Europe but also to the arms control cult, firmly rejected any missile defense. After the Reykjavik Summit, the then still meaningful National Council of Churches (NCC) condemned Reagan for his refusal to abandon his “Star Wars/SDI dream,” which was the “obstacle which dimmed the bright hopes for serious arms reduction.” It also speculated that the Soviets could match SDI with their own system, that SDI would be prohibitively expensive, and that “many scientists even doubt” that SDI was “technically achievable.”
The NCC’s board had earlier heard testimony from United Methodist ethicist Alan Geyer of Wesley Seminary, who suggested stopping SDI could “become the number one social justice issue on the churches’ agenda.” He also warned that missile defense for the U.S. “could prove a cover for a first strike.” Shortly before, the United Methodist Council of Bishops issued its “In Defense of Creation” manifesto rejecting both nuclear deterrence and missile defense. After Reykjavik, one Methodist bishop bemoaned that Reagan had lost the “most sweeping arms reduction agreement since Hiroshima” because of “misplaced confidence in a defense system.”
In the mid-1980s I was a college student interning at High Frontier, a proponent of missile defense founded by former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. General Daniel Graham (USA-Ret.). For High Frontier, Reagan’s March 23, 1983 speech had been a virtual holy day. Star Wars movie creator George Lucas unsuccessfully litigated against High Frontier for gleefully embracing what critics had already popularized as a term of derision. General Graham liked calling missile defense “Star Wars” because it recalled that the good guys defeated Darth Vader’s “Empire.” In 1985, I walked up the street from our office in Washington, D.C. to Foundry United Methodist Church to hear the United Methodist Council of Bishops’ hearings on their impending nuclear manifesto. On that particular day, U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Robert Rankin, Jr., a Methodist, was testifying in defense of SDI for “deterring aggression and increasing the security of the United States and its allies.” His appeal was for naught. The General Conference of the United Methodist Church in1988 and in subsequent years denounced missile defense. Even in 2001, after President Bush, who was himself Methodist, abrogated the ABM Treaty, the Council of Bishops unanimously criticized his commitment to missile defense as “illusory,” “unnecessary,” and “wasteful.”
In more recent years, liberal evangelicals have urged nuclear disarmament but are typically silent about or critical of missile defense. The National Association of Evangelicals in 2011 urged nuclear disarmament without mentioning missile defense. In the 1980s, some prominent religious conservatives defended Reagan’s SDI as a moral imperative. But few evangelical or other religious activists on the conservative side today directly address national security. They likely are modestly recognizing the limits of their vocation and expertise, boundaries that the Religious Left does not typically observe.
Reagan profoundly understood that the state’s supreme duty is to defend its people. The balance of terror under MAD to him was morally and politically untenable. SDI offered a pathway that was ethically and strategically superior. He likely did not fully expect its ultimate psychological impact on the implosion of the Soviet Union. Thanks to political inertia, 20 years passed before ABM was finally allowed to die. Even 12 years later, the U.S. lacks a comprehensive defense against missile attack. But at least there is incremental progress, with the Obama administration’s last move in the Pacific further vindicating Reagan’s vision and discrediting skeptics who preferred blind faith in arms control or permanent vulnerability to the threat of mass destruction.
This blog post originally appeared as an article on the American Spectator website.