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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.

Although various schemes for national missile defense were developed and discarded as unworkable in the past, Reagan announced in the speech that he was “directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term effort research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic missiles.” The revival of missile defense in the form of SDI was thus justified as a means for rendering nuclear weapons as “impotent and obsolete,” and as a means to transition from a strategy based upon mutually assured destruction to mutually assured security.

Reagan was not the first Republican leader to advocate for missile defense. Indeed, Richard Nixon used the missile defense issue against President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 campaign, arguing that the United States should “’go ahead at all costs’ to build an antimissile system to counter what he called the growing Soviet missile strength and a possible threat from Communist China.”

And, in spite of costs (more than $274 billion and counting since 1962), technological setbacks, and the fall of the Soviet Union, every president since Reagan has kept the dream of missile defense alive. For example, even while attempting to politically reconcile cooperation with the Soviet Union, George H. W. Bush redirected SDI in his 1991 State of the Union Address to “be refocused on providing protection from limited ballistic missile strikes, whatever their source,” while reiterating “progress in this great struggle is the result of years of vigilance and a steadfast commitment to a strong defense.” President George W. Bush further reinvigorated a program for national missile defense during his administration, but changed the program’s justification, arguing that it would be used to counter threats from rogue states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Most recently, the Obama administration announced it would reverse its 2011 decision to close a missile defense installation in Alaska, and would instead complete the project by installing additional ballistic missile interceptors, justifying it as a means to protect the United States from a threat from North Korea. President Obama has also continued but modified plans begun under the Bush administration for a “missile shield” in Europe. Meanwhile, Republican Members of Congress are urging the Pentagon to start work on an East Coast site for 20 anti-missile interceptors as a defense against Iran.

Watch Reagan’s full address to the nation announcing “Star Wars” thirty years ago here.

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