Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Reagan’s Missile Defense Vision Lives On

Ronald Reagan Addresses the Nation on National Security, March 23, 1983

Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan delivered an address to the nation on national security. On March 23, 1983, President Reagan used the bully pulpit of the presidency to convince the American public that Congress was cutting too much from his proposed defense budget. Reagan asserted that his increased defense budget, which he had submitted to Congress the previous month, was designed as “part of a careful, long-term plan to make America strong again after too many years of neglect and mistakes.” He urged the public to lobby Congress to “restore” the nation’s military strength:

There is no logical way that you can say, let's spend x billion dollars less. You can only say, which part of our defense measures do we believe we can do without and still have security against all contingencies? Anyone in the Congress who advocates a percentage or a specific dollar cut in defense spending should be made to say what part of our defenses he would eliminate, and he should be candid enough to acknowledge that his cuts mean cutting our commitments to allies or inviting greater risk or both…

The calls for cutting back the defense budget come in nice, simple arithmetic. They're the same kind of talk that led the democracies to neglect their defenses in the 1930's and invited the tragedy of World War II. We must not let that grim chapter of history repeat itself through apathy or neglect.

In addition to outlining his budget to bolster defenses, Reagan announced a new major program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as “Star Wars”), as part of the president’s broader efforts to build up America’s defense image. The president framed the need for SDI as providing defense from the threat posed by Soviet missiles. While Reagan believed that the United States should continue to negotiate with the former Soviet Union on the mutual reductions of nuclear weapons, he also believed that steps were necessary to deter aggression by means other than the promise of retaliation. President Reagan had come to abhor the policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD). He told the nation:

My predecessors in the Oval Office have appeared before you on other occasions to describe the threat posed by Soviet power and have proposed steps to address that threat. But since the advent of nuclear weapons, those steps have been increasingly directed toward deterrence of aggression through the promise of retaliation…

I've become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence. Feeling this way, I believe we must thoroughly examine every opportunity for reducing tensions and for introducing greater stability into the strategic calculus on both sides.