President Reagan and Missile Defense: The Realization of a Vision
"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 … attack, that we could intercept and destroy
strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or
that of our allies?"
Exactly 20 years ago today, President Reagan posed this intriguing
question. His goal was to end America's vulnerability to ballistic
missile attack by launching a program named the Strategic Defense
President Reagan was probably the only man with the ability to
propose SDI. Even though his vision was based on realism about the
threat facing America -- at that time the Soviet Union's nuclear
arsenal -- it was balanced by hope and great foresight.
His vision soon will be realized. The Bush administration plans to
field a limited ballistic missile defense system in late 2004 and
2005. The system will become operational despite intense opposition
over the last two decades in Congress and in the executive branch
during the Clinton administration.
Why has SDI survived, and even thrived? Here are some of the
reasons President Reagan's vision has proven so compelling and
- SDI is based on common sense. The simple
premise behind SDI is that America ought to be able to
defend itself against attack -- and, because it possesses
this ability, perhaps even prevent one -- instead of simply
responding to a successful attack.
SDI's grounding in self-defense is why the idea is nearing
realization 20 years later, even though the world is a dramatically
different place than it was in 1983.
- SDI is based on conservative
principles. In foreign policy, conservatism stands
for American strength, leadership and moral confidence. SDI
represents all of those.
It was originally a way to become stronger than the Soviet Union,
encourage others to stand up to Soviet threats and reassure
Americans and others around the world that our cause in countering
the Soviet Union was just. President Reagan's SDI proposal allowed
no room for arguments of moral equivalency between the United
States and the Soviet Union.
- SDI is a big and powerful idea. Enduring
policies are not based on narrow or small-minded ideas. SDI was a
big concept that became one of the chief means for confronting and
defeating the Soviet threat. Today it remains critical, as a means
of countering the threat posed by rogue states and
President Reagan had the vision to propose an initiative as far
reaching and flexible as SDI. He focused on getting a handful of
big, important things done, rather than spreading his efforts over
a broad array of narrow initiatives designed to please special
interests, as President Clinton so often did. This is why history
will judge Reagan as a conservative Franklin Delano Roosevelt and
Clinton as a liberal Warren G. Harding.
- The SDI message is hopeful and
uplifting. President Reagan was an optimistic
leader. He viewed missile defense as a way to brighten a world that
lived under the darkness caused by the threat of nuclear
annihilation. It's not surprising the American people found comfort
and hope in this message.
- President Reagan demonstrated the courage of
his convictions. It's impossible to
imagine the pressure President Reagan was under at the legendary
1986 Reykjavik summit with Soviet Secretary General Mikhail
Gorbachev. Secretary Gorbachev offered to eliminate nuclear weapons
in exchange for the termination of the SDI program. How many
presidents could have turned that down?
Yet by rejecting the disingenuous Soviet offer, President Reagan
underlined the importance of SDI. That's why, 20 years later, SDI
is close to fruition, while the USSR is dead and buried.
President Clinton, by contrast, opposed missile
defense as fervently as President Reagan supported it. Crucial
research was scaled back severely or canceled outright during the
1990s. Yet when Congress passed the National Missile Defense Act of
1999, which established in law the policy of deploying a
missile-defense system, Clinton chose to sign the bill -- assuring
that President Reagan's vision for would survive after all.
President Reagan's idea strengthened our national security and that
of our allies by overcoming the Soviet threat. President Bush is
likewise demonstrating strong leadership by taking an idea born
during the Cold War and using it to defend America against today's
terrorists and rogue states. That's why it is appropriate to mark
the anniversary of President Reagan's 1983 speech (as a
congressional resolution sponsored by Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind.,
would do) -- and to realize how crucial it is to take the few steps
that remain to make SDI a reality.
-Baker Spring is
the Kirby research fellow in national security policy at The
Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research