Reagan Proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative

When President Ronald Reagan called on the United States to develop the ability to intercept enemy missiles in space, his proposal set off an intense debate over the technological feasibility and political consequences of such a space shield and became a significant issue in Soviet-U.S. nuclear arms negotiations.

Summary of Event

President Ronald Reagan, in a nationally televised address on March 23, 1983, explaining his expanded defense budget for the coming fiscal year, proposed that the United States begin a research program to develop space- and land-based antiballistic missile systems that would destroy incoming missiles before they reached the United States. The idea was Reagan’s own; the proposal he presented was written with the aid of his immediate staff, kept secret from most of his advisers, and opposed by the few who saw advance copies of the speech. The proposal set off an immediate furor. Strategic Defense Initiative
Nuclear weapons;disarmament
[kw]Reagan Proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative (Mar. 23, 1983)
[kw]Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan Proposes the (Mar. 23, 1983)
[kw]Defense Initiative, Reagan Proposes the Strategic (Mar. 23, 1983)
[kw]Initiative, Reagan Proposes the Strategic Defense (Mar. 23, 1983)
Strategic Defense Initiative
Nuclear weapons;disarmament
[g]North America;Mar. 23, 1983: Reagan Proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative[05160]
[g]United States;Mar. 23, 1983: Reagan Proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative[05160]
[c]Cold War;Mar. 23, 1983: Reagan Proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative[05160]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 23, 1983: Reagan Proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative[05160]
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;Strategic Defense Initiative
Gorbachev, Mikhail
[p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations]
Bush, George H. W.
[p]Bush, George H. W.;nuclear disarmament

The idea of such a defense system was not a new concept for Reagan. He had abhorred nuclear weapons from the earliest days of the atomic age, and for more than a decade he had been reading positive stories about spaced-based antimissile lasers in his favorite conservative weekly. Reagan distrusted the prevailing “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD, doctrine, which asserted that nations would refrain from using nuclear weapons Weapons;nuclear because they would be destroyed in return. Instead, he had a utopian hope that an invulnerable defense would make possible the abolition of all nuclear weapons. In a sentence he wrote himself and kept in the speech over repeated objections of his closest aides, he said, “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.”

Reagan’s proposal, promising total protection of the population of the United States, proved very popular with the general public, although with few commentators. Critics derided the idea as science-fiction fantasy and dubbed it “Star Wars” after a recent science-fiction film. Experts called the idea impractical, saying it was based on untested and unrealizable technologies; others claimed that countermeasures, such as the use of decoys and chaff to confuse the system, would easily overcome the defenses. Some worried that the idea would lead to the weaponization of space and destabilize the nuclear balance of power. Allies of the United States, who had not been consulted, feared it might disrupt efforts to negotiate nuclear arms control.

Named the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), Reagan’s proposal aroused fierce opposition from the Soviet Union, which rejected the idea that SDI was purely defensive, arguing that if the United States developed an effective shield against ballistic missiles it could launch a first strike, secure in its ability to withstand retaliation. The vigor of Soviet objections to a missile shield conferred respectability on the belief that such a defense system was achievable.

After the March, 1985, accession of reformist Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the Soviet Union, Reagan and Gorbachev met at four summits during which the emphasis shifted from limiting strategic nuclear weapons to reducing or possibly even eliminating them. SDI became a major issue in the discussions.

When the two leaders met in neutral Geneva, Switzerland, in November, 1985, commentators asserted that Reagan had the ultimate bargaining chip in SDI. There was no way, they argued, that the Soviet Union could develop a similar system without bankrupting its economy long before the United States suffered from paying for Reagan’s military buildup. Gorbachev objected strongly to SDI, but Reagan was adamant and suggested that both sides should research antimissile shields and share results. The leaders could agree on little other than that they would meet later in each other’s countries and leave details on a substantial limitation of nuclear arms to continuing negotiations.

When agreement proved difficult, Gorbachev suggested an interim summit to break the deadlock. Americans expected that the meeting held in Reykjavik, Iceland, midway between Moscow and Washington would merely prepare for the impending Washington summit, but Gorbachev arrived with specific proposals. He called for eliminating Soviet and U.S. medium-range missiles in Europe and reducing strategic offensive weapons by 50 percent. Gorbachev wanted an agreement not to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972)[Antiballistic Missile Treaty] for ten years and a prohibition on testing space-based defenses. As agreeing to the last two propositions would effectively mean abandoning SDI, Reagan adamantly refused to limit the initiative to laboratory research. Reagan repeated an offer to share any SDI system, but Gorbachev said he could not take this seriously, given that the United States was unwilling to share information on technology for oil well equipment or even milking machines with the Soviet Union.

In meetings of the leaders alone and with their foreign ministers, Reagan and Gorbachev came close to sweeping arms reduction agreements, exact details of which are unclear, but in one extreme version would have entailed scrapping the entire nuclear arsenals of both countries. Every effort broke down, however, over Gorbachev’s insistence on limiting SDI and Reagan’s adamant refusal to use it as a bargaining chip.

At the Washington summit in December, 1987, SDI proved less of a distraction. Gorbachev claimed he was no longer interested in the program. He said his science advisers had convinced him SDI could not do what Reagan hoped, and what it could do might easily be countered by measures that were cheaper and more effective than any possible American defense. Pro-Reagan commentators, many of whom have credited SDI with causing the implosion of the Soviet economy when the Soviet Union tried to match American efforts to create such a defense system, have accused Gorbachev of dissembling, asserting that he ignored the opinions of many American scientists who disagreed with their Soviet counterparts on the limited effectiveness of space-based defenses.

On December 8, the two leaders signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987)[Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty] which called for the destruction of 1,752 Soviet missiles and 859 American ones, eliminating such weapons in Europe. Conservative critics, who would later claim Reagan’s policies caused the collapse of the Soviet system, attacked the agreement, calling Reagan Gorbachev’s dupe; they argued that the treaty left the European allies of the United States facing overwhelming Soviet superiority in troops, tanks, and artillery. Gorbachev received a warm welcome from Washingtonians, who lined the streets to cheer him as his limousine passed.

The final summit in Moscow, in May, 1988, proved a personal triumph for Reagan, who was applauded by the Moscow crowds, although little of substance was accomplished at the meeting. Negotiation of a 50 percent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons and extension of the ABM Treaty was left to Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush.


The demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War greatly diminished interest in SDI. After successfully securing major reductions in nuclear weapons, President George H. W. Bush cut appropriations for SDI and reduced expectations for the system. While Bush’s administration continued to use the metaphor of a space shield, more limited objectives replaced Reagan’s concept of total protection of the American population. Efforts focused on systems designed to protect American missile bases, then stressed developing land-based ABM batteries situated along the Pacific Coast, poised to intercept rockets from Asia. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty and increased funding for the missile defense system.

Despite more than twenty years of research and testing, and the expenditure of many billions of dollars, reliable success in intercepting missiles with defensive antiballistic weapons proved elusive. The task proved much harder than Reagan had anticipated. His utopian dream of protecting the population of the United States with an impenetrable shield in space that would render nuclear weapons obsolete and make their elimination feasible was abandoned. Even limited defensive goals seemed as difficult to achieve as critics of SDI had predicted. Strategic Defense Initiative
Nuclear weapons;disarmament

Further Reading

  • Fischer, Beth A. The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and End of the Cold War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. Credits the Reagan administration with initiating a conciliatory policy that led to ending the Cold War.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Presents a clear, detailed narrative of the politics and diplomacy of SDI from a point of view that is skeptical of Reagan’s contribution.
  • Lakoff, Sanford, and Herbert F. York. A Shield in Space? Technology, Politics, and the Strategic Defense Initiative How the Reagan Administration Set Out to Make Nuclear Weapons “Impotent and Obsolete” and Succumbed to the Fallacy of the Last Move. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. An influential negative assessment of SDI.
  • Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York: Random House, 2005. Draws on newly declassified documents to present a positive evaluation of Reagan’s nuclear diplomacy, including SDI.
  • Reeves, Richard. President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Highly favorable narrative of Reagan’s presidential years includes discussion of the personal and political background of SDI.

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