Skip to comments.How Reagan and SDI Helped Win the Cold War
Posted on 06/06/2004 2:04:48 AM PDT by xagent
A VERY long read, skip ahead if you want to get past the Cold War history
America's longest war was in a sense, not a traditional war. The United States did not engage in any direct conflict or battle with its enemy, nor were any direct shots fired. Yet this, war, which lasted for over forty years, put people in such a state of fear that was unprecedented with any previous American conflicts. Known as the Cold War, it describes the "era of doubtfulness and distrust between the Western and Eastern powers" in the post World War II world. Newspaper editor Herbert Bayard Swope coined this term "Cold War", in a speech he wrote for Presidential advisor Bernard Baruch.1 These two powers in question are the United States, and the Soviet Union, formally called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Both of these two world powers dominated opposite hemispheres of the Earth. With the two largest nuclear powers on the verge of an all out nuclear war, resulting in worldwide nuclear fallout, the potential for Armageddon haunted the daily lives of many people. For many Americans, the Soviet Union was unlike any previous enemy the United States had faced. Due to America's late entry into World War I, World War I for many Americans was a short, confident victory. World War II was a war fought before the age of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The ability for a country to remotely, or outside American borders, launch a nuclear weapon hundred times more destructive and powerful than the fission bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima was an unnerving concept. To many Americans, the horrors of Nazism and the Japanese were nothing compared to the atrocities of communism and socialism, and rightly so. Even the death tolls of Hitler, reaching 11 million, paled in comparison.2 It is estimated that in the Soviet Union 61,911,000 people were killed in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1987, not including the dozens of millions imprisoned, exiled, or sent into the gulags of Siberia. Under Mao Tse-tung, 34.4 million Chinese were killed from 1949 through 1976.3 When the numbers of Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, Yugoslavia, North Korea, and the numerous Latin American regimes are added, the death count of communism and socialism exceeds 100 million. Thus for America, this was also a battle against communist ideology, not just the Soviets, believed to be the source of communism. Historians generally accept this as the defining event of the second half of the nineteenth century, lasting from 1945 through 1991. Never before had America faced an enemy so powerful and so threatening, or as President Ronald Reagan put it, "the focus of evil in the modern world".4 This time period also saw a drastic change in American foreign policy and politics, in terms of military buildup, global interventions, and containment. Studying the rise and fall of the Cold War is crucial in comprehending modern American history and reasons for US foreign policy. The term of President Reagan, his enormous military buildup, and especially Reagan's famous Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), are extremely controversial in the role they played to ending the Cold War.
In order to fully understand the reasons behind Reagan's military policies and his SDI program and their effects, it is important to understand the history of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. There is no certainty as to when the Cold War exactly started. Some say it began the instant the Russian Revolution began. On February 1917, peasants, workers, and revolutionary soldiers overthrew the Czar Nicholas II and set up a socialist Provisional Government. On October 24th and 25th, 1917, the Bolshevik faction, led by Vladimir Lenin, staged another revolution, eliminated the Provisional Government, and established a more fundamental communist regime known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.5 One of their goals was to influence socialist revolutions around the world. Fears of communist and socialist revolutions in the US quickly spread, proving that the new Soviet message was heard around the world.
Many believe the Cold War did not start until World War II. Despite America's alliance with the Soviet Union during the war, a series of events led to hostile tensions. On August 28th, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in Moscow, in which neither would attempt to take over the other's land and would remain neutral.6 Such an alliance led to international criticism, and deeper mistrust from the Allied nations. Nevertheless, the Allied nations were forced to ally with the Soviet Union when Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet pact and launched World War II. Stalin's invasion of the Baltic states in 1940, and the subsequent Teheran Conference in 1943 further perpetuated tensions with the US and Allied countries.7 At this conference, Stalin insisted that Roosevelt and Churchill allow him to conquer territories in Asia and Europe in exchange for his efforts against Hitler.
Eventually Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 and was succeeded by Vice President Truman. Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan gave an excellent opportunity to negotiate with the Soviets regarding post-war plans and is said to have influenced the Soviets to declare war on Japan on August 8, 1945, just two days after the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This was one of the first signs of the US using what Soviet propaganda would later call "atomic diplomacy", the act of using the threat of nuclear weapons to gain leverage in negotiations. 8 On February 1947, Truman managed to get Congress to agree for $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey, which he believed were falling under Soviet and communist influence. Regarding his plan, Truman is quoted as saying, "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."9 Known as the Truman Doctrine, its policy of containment, that of global intervention to stop the spread of communism, became a cornerstone of US foreign policy for decades to follow.
Lastly, the Marshall Plan was the final straw that broke the camel's back. In June 1948, Truman unveiled the European Recovery Act, named the Marshall Plan after Secretary of State George C. Marshall. This $10.2 billion plan would give aid to redevelop twenty two post-war European countries.10 The Soviets responded to this by the famous Berlin blockade, in which all electricity, water, roads, and deliveries of any food and supplies were shut down between East and West Berlin. This was the first direct and military opposition to the Allied nations by the Soviet Union, to which the Allies used an airlift to drop off supplies into East Berlin. Simultaneously, Stalin issued the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in January 1949, his economic plan to counter the Marshall Plan. And so the Cold War began.
What soon followed eventually led to the famed nuclear arms race of the Cold War. In January 1950, Truman pushed for a program to develop the hydrogen bomb, a bomb that employed the process of nuclear fusion, as opposed to fission. Such H-bombs can be 100 to 1000 times more powerful than the previous atomic bombs. When the US dropped its first hydrogen bomb on the Pacific island of Elugelab on November 1, 1952, the Soviets followed suit by droppings its first bomb on August 1953.11 The Soviet Union had made overwhelming progress in developing its own nuclear weapons program and catching up to the US. The fact that the Soviets managed to test their first bomb just eight months after the US proved that if Truman had not gone through with the H-bomb program in 1950, the Soviets would have developed the bomb first. There are even reports that the Soviets had begun their own research programs as early as 1947 or 1948.12
The acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union was a paramount concern for Americans. Nikita Khrushchev, the soon-to-be premier threatened at a speech in Prague in 1954 that "the imperialists would not be restrained by humanitarianism from using nuclear weapons", and that a nuclear war would mean the end of capitalism.13 The nuclear arms race was now inevitable. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by China during the 1960's, now an emerging communist power, only worsened nuclear tensions between the United States and the communist world. Other crises such as the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Vietnam War added more fuel to the fire. Prior to 1962, the Soviet Union did not have any sites within close proximity to the United States, whereas the US did from several locations in Asia and Europe. Khrushchev saw an opportunity in Cuba, where socialist revolutionary Fidel Castro had overthrown Cuba's dictator Fulgencio Batista in the Cuban Revolution of 1959.14 Thinking the US would not find out, Khrushchev secretly transported ICBM missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads in Cuba. Responding to such rumors of the USSR selling or transporting nuclear weapons to the new communist regime of Castro, US spy planes spotted such missiles in Cuba on October 14, 1962. Additional photos also revealed nuclear weapons storage facilities and bases that were being built. President Kennedy, not wanting to spark a nuclear war, set up a "quarantine" around Cuba.15 Whereas a blockade would have been considered an act of war, setting up a quarantine was a loophole that let Kennedy essentially set up a blockade. After demanding that the US remove its missiles that were ready to shoot at the Soviet Union, Khrushchev back down fearing a US invasion of Cuba that would spark a nuclear war. By October 28, 1962, the Cuban missile crisis had died down and Khrushchev and Castro agreed to have all the missiles and weapons dismantled and removed within 30 days, under the surveillance of US aircraft.16 This terrifying Cuban missile crisis represented one of the highest and lowest points during the Cold War. For the first time, the Soviet Union had placed missiles capable of being fired at nearly most of the mainland United States. As tensions flared between the two superpowers, a nuclear war was closely avoided. This was the closest the two nations ever came to directly threatening each other with an all out nuclear assault and invasion. However, the resolution and Kennedy's solution to the Cuban missile crisis created a major thaw in the Cold War, actually making US and Soviet relations better. As a result, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed soon after in 1963 by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain. According to this treaty, all nuclear tests conducted underwater or in the atmosphere were forbidden. Only underground nuclear tests were allowed.
Leonid Brezhnev, a high-ranking secretary of the Communist Party, soon replaced Krushchev first secretary of the Soviet Union, and marked the beginning of détente with the United States. Détente, a relaxing of tensions, is most commonly associated with the 1970's, and refer to the numerous negotiations with President Richard Nixon and Brezhnev. By 1972, the Soviet Union possessed 1,510 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 500 more than what the US possessed.17 It was clear the Soviets had more than caught up in the arms race, and were pushing for fire-strike capacity, the ability to launch a nuclear attack against an enemy nation without with retaliated in return. Starting in 1969, a series of landmark meetings and treaties were signed between the two nuclear superpowers. Known as the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, the first set of these SALT negotiations ended on January 1972. The result of these SALT I talks resulted in two major accords: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty), and the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms.18
The need for an ABM Treaty arose originally during the 1960's under President Johnson, when the US learned of Soviet attempts to build ground based defenses. According to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, defensive and offensive systems were mutual; the deployment of anti-ballistic defense systems would be met with equal offensive weapons systems, in effect nullifying the effect of the defense systems. Defense systems of the 1960s and early 70s were extremely prone to attacks themselves, and some experts even questioned their reliability. Additionally, defense systems were more costly to develop than weapons systems designed for offense.19 McNamara continued to argue his case, and pushed for limitations on strategic defenses, by claiming it would be simpler to resort to offensive parity, where both nations are matched equally in offenses. This mutual deterrence would in a way act as a defense.
On May 26, 1972 Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger finally signed the SALT accords. The ABM Treaty limited the placement of ABM systems to within the countries borders, and only allowed for immobile, land based defense systems. It also set limits on the various types of nuclear weapons delivery systems allowed, and limited the numbers and locations of weapons and radars. 2,200 strategic delivery vehicles were allowed for the US, while 2,400 were allowed for the Soviet Union.20 The Soviets were allowed 2,358 ICBMs, and the US only 1,710. Also, the Soviets got to keep 62 submarine launched ballistic missiles, whereas the US was left with only 44. It was issued as a five year renewable treaty.21 Besides that fact that this treaty limited defense systems, it also greatly favored the Soviets. Also, it did not lead to the reductions in offensive arms as promised. Both countries rapidly developed their offensive weapons out of fear that parity would not be maintained. Nixon ordered the development of air and sea launched cruise missiles, and new submarine launched Trident missile.22
Regardless, US defense spending, including spending for strategic programs, declined continuously until 1977, on top of the numerous limitations American offensive weapons, and the even sharper limitations on ABM. In 1973, Congress cut 7.2% from Nixon's defense budget.23 The Soviet Union on the other hand, did the exact opposite. Their view of the American eagerness to sign an arms deal was that Kissinger and Nixon valued the Soviet buildup, even feared it. Military spending for the Soviets increased from 1960 through 1980, significantly each year.24 For example, in 1974 the Soviet Union spent $109 billion on defense spending, as compared to $85 billion for the US, even though the US produced a much higher GNP.25
Noticing this the weakened American power, Soviets invested even more in their military as they rapidly increased their arsenal, developed four new ICBMs, and developed advanced ballistic missile submarines. Critics of SALT and détente charged the administration of selling out to the Soviets and giving the Soviets, who had refused serious limitations on offensive systems from the start. By the time Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974 due to the Watergate scandal, it was generally accepted among the politicians that the SALT I accords had failed. Kissinger wrote in one of his memoirs, "Our test, was whether we were, on balance, better off with an accord than without."26 Hoping to patch up the American arms losses, Kissinger traveled with new President Gerald Ford to Vladivostok to discuss a new set of arms negotiations known as SALT II from 1974 through 1979. The Vladivotsk Accord, the first deal of SALT II, was signed in November 1974 and placed limitations on the number of strategic missiles and bombers available to each country. Both sides were limited to 2,400 of these strategic missiles and bombers.27 However, this treaty did nothing to reduce or limit the massive Soviet military buildup. In fact, Soviet strategic arms and defense spending actually increased at a greater rate after the Vladivotsk Accord than after the SALT I Treaty. The building and advancement of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) was able to continue under this accord. American demands to reduce Soviet "heavy missiles", known as MX missiles were also not met. 28 What appeared like another détente in US-Soviet relations, was only another ineffective arms deal that escalated the arms race and led to the same arms buildup it was intended to avoid.
Soon after, the United States had developed the cruise missile system. Cruise missiles were small, pilotless missiles with explosive warheads that resembled an aircraft. With wings and small jet engines, they can be controlled remotely for accurate targeting.29 Meanwhile, the Soviets had introduced a new type of bomber nicknamed "Backfire", that had strategic range. Any hope of signing a new SALT II Treaty to complete the arms negotiations died out, even more so as several nations such as Vietnam, Angola, Ethiopia, and Cambodia fell under the wrath of communism or socialism.
Despite these conflicts, efforts were made by both the Nixon and Carter administrations to complete the SALT II arms negotiations and sign a treaty. Throughout 1977, The Soviet Union continually rejected American proposals for the amount of "heavy missiles" the Soviet Union could possess, until the US gave up on trying to limit the Soviet missiles below their current arsenal of 300.30 The US thought they could deal with the problem by limiting MIRVs and ICBMs. The Soviet Union further bullied the US when they were forced into limiting the number cruise missiles and their range, but the Soviets did not have any limitations placed on their new Backfire bomber. The Treaty was finally signed on June 18, 1979 ad it also defined and limited each type of strategic weapon launcher.31 A landmark for this treaty was that Senator Charles Mathias managed to convince the Soviet chief delegate to the SALT II treaty that the US Senate would not approve the treaty unless the Soviet Union provided solid proof and data on the size of their forces.32 The US Senate however, never ratified this Treaty. Shortly after in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Carter ordered the Senate to not ratify it in retaliation.
The decade followed would represent a drastic change in course for US foreign policy and relations with the Soviet Union. As the SALT and ABM treaties turned out to be ineffective, and only led to a sharper Soviet buildup, nuclear tensions were mounting. Faith in détente was declining. By 1981, the Cold War had entered one of its most confrontational periods. The election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States in 1980 was perhaps the most important and impacting event in Cold War history. Reagan, an archconservative and ardent anti-communist, campaigned on a platform of tough foreign policy. He was determined to turn the country around and play
hardball with the Soviet Union. Unlike Nixon and Carter, Reagan was unwilling to compromise with any middle ground. Despite Nixon and Carter's large military and arms buildup, he publicly criticized them for letting the Soviets gain the advantage. MAD, the concept of mutually assured destruction was believed that nuclear deterrence could be achieved by both countries threatening each other with nuclear retaliation. In other words, the Soviet Union did not dare try to spark a war with the United States, because the United States would retaliate with just as much, if not greater force. Reagan was staunchly opposed to this concept. He found it ridiculous that an offensive strike was the only thing theoretically preventing a nuclear war. In the summer of 1979, Reagan was invited to visit the North American Air Defense Command Center in the Colorado mountains, where he was fascinated by the high-technology weapons systems capable of tracking missiles launched at the US.33 Many believe it is here that his interest in anti-ballistic defense and strategic defense programs began. It only seemed logical to thwart off an attack, rather than place trust in a foreign enemy to not get "trigger-happy". The SALT agreements and MAD were "a suicide pact" to Reagan.34 Lt. General Daniel O. Graham, one of Reagan's top campaign advisors remarked about Reagan, "A Mexican standoff... he said it was like two men with nuclear pistols pointed at each other's heads, and if one man's finger flinches, you're going to get your brains blown out."35
Believing increase defense systems, and an actual reduction in nuclear offensive weapons was the key to preventing a nuclear war, Reagan pushed for his own set of negotiations and treaties with the Soviet Union. This was driven by, his belief that the biblical prophecy of Armageddon would come true from a nuclear war, the downing of a Korean passenger airline by Soviet jets, and the Euromissile crisis in which NATO began deploying US intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe, from 1981 through 1983.36 Known as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, its intention was to reduce the amount of ICBM missiles and other land based missiles each country possessed, and initiate a drastic cut down in nuclear warheads. Starting in May 1982, START became the key set of agreements pushed forward by Reagan during many Soviet meetings to come.37 At the same time, Reagan employed a hard-line stance to the spread of communism, closely following the Truman Doctrine. This time conflicts were in Latin America. In the Central American country of Nicaragua, the revolutionary communist regime known as the Sandinistas had overthrown the dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. The Sandinista government began financing and training guerillas for a revolution to overthrow the government in El Salvador. In 1981 the US and its Central Intelligence Agency began training anti-Sandinista freedom fighters in Nicaragua and El Salvador known as the Contras. The El Salvador government received $25 million in additional aid to fight the Marxist guerillas.38 In 1983, Reagan authorized the invasion of the Caribbean island Grenada to restore its democracy after communist rebels killed the prime minister.
On March 23, 1983, President Reagan finally unveiled his plans for an outer space based strategic defense system known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI for short. In a speech to the world, he revealed his plans to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" by directing a long term research program that would eliminate the threat posed by nuclear weapons.39 By constructing a successful defense against enemy ballistic missiles, the US could destroy missiles before they even reached American airspace. This would give the US what is known as first-strike capacity, in which the US can successfully launch an attack against the Soviet Union if need be, and thwart a Soviet counter-strike. Building or researching such a defense system was in violation of the ABM Treaty and the SALT I accords, as it would undo MAD. The assured deterrence would turn into assured survival; Reagan knew this, and it is precisely why he refused to back down his stance on SDI, despite criticism from home and Soviet demands. He saw this as leverage to achieve his START arms reductions. The US, which possessed the financial and technological resources to complete this, now had the political backing to make it a reality.
The proposed technology to power this SDI program lay in X-ray lasers. Scientists and physicists had already been researching for decades for a way to develop X-ray lasers. As the newly elected governor of California in 1967, Ronald Reagan met Edward Teller, the head of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory where such extensive research was being conducted, and Reagan was briefed on various technologies that could one day be part of SDI.40 By 1980, he had developed the Excalibur, a small X-ray laser. The only problem that existed was channeling the energy of an exploding hydrogen bomb into these X-ray laser beams so it could destroy enemy missiles. Teller would go on to be the most vocal and influential lobbyist during the 1980's to advocate laser technology research and explain the scientific aspects of SDI to Congress.41 One of the blueprints to design SDI's architecture consisted of a four layered missile defense, in which each layer can theoretically intercept 90% of the nuclear warheads headed at it. All four of these layers combined would destroy 99.99% of the nuclear warheads.42 The four phases are the boost phase, the post-boost phase, the midcourse phase, and the terminal phase. Each phase represents the different locations and stages of a missile that is launched.
At home, SDI was met with much criticism from liberals who either viewed SDI as dangerously unnecessary, too expensive, or technologically unfeasible. Immediately the liberal media, unable to grasp the seriousness and complexity of the SDI model, dubbed it as "Star Wars", based on the hit sci-fi movies from the 1970's. Such critics often trivialized the significance and potential for SDI, and brushed it off, thinking Reagan would soon abandon it. In contrast, Reagan remained devoted to pushing forward SDI as a way to cool the nuclear tensions. For example, one study by the Union of Concerned Scientists that criticized the SDI program wrongly speculated that 2,400 satellites, each costing $1 billion, would be needed to defend a Soviet attack.43 This meant the government would need to place thousands of satellites, totaling trillions of dollars into space. In reality, a study conducted by the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory determined approximately 90 satellites would be needed to cover the entire globe.44
Funding for SDI varied over the decade. Originally, SDI expenditures were estimated to total around $30 billion. Yearly Reagan's administrations' SDI budget requests usually remained between $3.5 billion and $3.8 billion. As part of the 1985 budget for example, his administration requested $3.7 for SDI research. The House only allocated $2.5 billion to the program, and at the time the Senate was expected to allocate $3 billion.45 Even much later in the decade, in 1988, the SDI program still faced hurdles. Having just returned from Moscow by signing the INF Treaty which banned certain nuclear weapons and reduced others, Reagan felt extremely confident. Convinced that he must push forward with his SDI program with no compromises, he vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act given by Congress. Reagan boldly stated, "I'm putting the 'I' - initiative - in SDI...As I say, I will not abide it. I do not believe the American people will either."46 The bill in question put a 20% cut in funding for SDI, plus further restrictions on the space-based components of SDI. Reagan believed this bill would reduce his bargaining leverage to the Soviets, as it called for an additional 25% cut in strategic modernization funding, at the same time the US was negotiating strategic arms reduction treaty.47 Ronald Reagan was a man determined to safeguard his space defense in hopes of freeing the world from nuclear terror.
Was Reagan justified in doing so? What role did Reagan and his SDI play in the Cold War, and to what extent were they responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union? Towards the end of the 1980's, the Soviet Union began losing its grip on many of its European border states, and Gorbachev did not bother preventing them from leaving the USSR. By 1991, Gorbachev resigned as first secretary of the Communist Party, and the Soviet Union had broken apart. Boris Yeltsin, a rising hero became the President of the newly formed Russia. The Soviet Union was dead, and so was the Cold War. SDI was the most important factor in collapse of the "evil empire", and without Reagan's SDI, it is unlikely the Soviet Union would have fallen apart when it did.
What the Critics Say...
Apparently, not everyone agrees about the importance of SDI. The most common counter-theories claim that Gorbachev himself was responsible for ending the Cold War. When Chernenko died in 1985 after a brief rule, Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Communist General Secretary, succeeded him. Almost immediately he pushed through with radical reforms in Soviet politics and economics. First, he pushed through a policy called glasnost, which translates to openness. In addition to increasing publicity and keeping the public aware of the Communist party actions, it increased freedom of speech. His goal was to remove the shroud of secrecy that covered Soviet politics and encourage public involvement. Glasnost also increased public assembly and introduced new rights for consumers, employees, and managers.48 This was reinforced by another policy of democratization that encouraged competition in politics and called for responsibility by all citizens and government officials. His economic reform, known as perestroika, meant to undo the tight control on the economy. It called for some decentralization, more incentives for workers and managers, advances in technology, and for introducing the Soviet Union to world trade and foreign investors.49
In terms of foreign policy, Gorbachev also initiated drastic changes. He had withdrawn Soviet troops from Mongolia and the brutal war in Afghanistan. After referring to Afghanistan as a "bleeding sore", he put pressure on the regimes in Vietnam and Cuba, that limited Soviet aid to these countries and forced them to use the aid more efficiently.50 In January 1987, he announced a plan to incorporate democratic elections with many candidates. It is with these reforms of Gorbachev that many of the arguments against the importance of SDI originate from. They believe that the Soviet Union collapsed from internal pressures and needs for reform, rather than outside influences such as SDI or Reagan; Gorbachev responded to these needs with his reforms. Gorbachev, in an interview with George Bush and Margaret Thatcher in 1996, stated "With the technological progress and the improvement of the educational and cultural level, the old system began to be rejected by people who saw their initiative suppressed, who saw they were unable to realize their potential. The first impulses for reform were in the Soviet Union itself, which could no longer tolerate the lack of freedom...In the eyes of the people, especially the educated, the totalitarian system had run its course morally and politically. People were waiting for reform. Russia was pregnant."51
Clinton's Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, another critic and person who shared Gorbachev's view, explained, "[the collapse of the USSR] revealed a brittleness in the entire Communist system...That brittleness has been there all along, but it was often mistaken for toughness." He went on to say that the Soviet Union was never a threat.52 The flaws and even ignorance in the logic are obvious. In reality, the Soviet Union and nuclear war posed a great threat, not just to America but the rest of the world. The 100 million killed due to communism and socialism, plus the hundreds of millions oppressed would not take kindly to his words. The impoverished and oppressed people of Eastern Europe and central Asia, who suffered the wrath of the Soviet Union would not have mistaken the Soviet Union for toughness. This was definitely not a system that collapsed from internal "brittleness". In response to Gorbachev's reforms, it can be argued that his reforms and the internal pressure were a result of increased Soviet military spending and economic strains caused by the threat of SDI.
Another common argument against the importance of SDI was that the Soviet defense spending did not rise or fall due to the threat of SDI. If SDI had bankrupted the Soviet Union, the critics claim Soviet defense spending should have also decreased, due to a lack of funds.53 Once again, this argument doesn't hold up. The fact that it didn't decrease doesn't mean anything. A decrease, as their theory states, could signal that their economy was failing. However, wouldn't one expect the Soviets to increase defense spending also in response to SDI? Faced with SDI, the Soviets would have responded by funding their own research and counter-SDI programs. A decrease in Soviet spending could be the end result - that is after the Soviet Union becomes completely bankrupt from either increased spending, or spending at the same rate in a failing and fundamentally flawed economic system. CIA estimates show that gross Soviet military spending remained constant during the 1980s, including during Gorbachev's first four years into his term. Soviet defense spending did not decline until 1989.54 This decrease can be viewed as the end result, in that after decades of an arms buildup and a decade of being threatened by SDI, the Soviet economy had finally collapsed and was unable to fund enough for defense. Some others argue that Israel, Britain, Taiwan, and South Korea were also heavily invested in defense spending like the Soviet Union, but did not collapse.55 However, all these nations were on friendly terms with the US, and did not feel threatened by SDI as the Soviets did. Additionally, they were capitalist countries and as a result had prosperous economies, unlike the Soviets whose economy seemed to be in perpetual trouble.
In contrast, the evidence to support the theory that SDI was the most important factor in ending the Cold War when it did, is much more solid. The threat that a global space-based missile defense program created was overwhelming to the Soviet Union. Critics can trivialize the importance and potential of a working strategic defense, but its implications were undeniable. According to Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, "The point of SDI was to stop nuclear weapons from reaching their objective. The first nation that got it would have a tremendous advantage because the whole military balance would change. So, it was of supreme importance." Reagan knew this from the start, and he knew the one area in which the Soviets had a significant disadvantage: computer technology. The Computer Revolution had not yet hit the Soviet Union during the early 1980's, and it would have been hard for them to develop a space defense system that was controlled by a supercomputer.56 The Soviets had however, made some surprising gains in military technology in the past. For example, the first satellite, the Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union. Nobel Prize winners Dr. Basov and Dr. Prokhorov also developed the laser independently in Russia. Upon the news of this laser, the Soviets almost immediately began researching laser technology to create laser-based weapons. The Soviet Union was also the first nation to put weapons in space.57 Spacecraft orbiting the earth were able to test weapons systems well before Reagan introduced SDI, although they were hardly strategic defense systems or even viable defenses. For this sole purpose, the Soviet Union established the Chief Directorate of Space Warfare (GUCOS) to research space warfare, hoping to be able to place weapons in space.58 While this does give even more justification for the development of the American SDI, it can be used both to support and contradict the hypothesis that SDI caused the breakup of the Soviet Union. At first, it can be argued that the Soviets would have nothing to worry about from an American SDI, when they were already conducting extensive research on their own defense program. But, this would be assuming that the Soviet SDI program was successful and making progress. Given the poor state of the Soviet Union's technology and lack of computers, it seems likely that such an advanced space defense program would have been too complicated for them. The Soviets must have known this, and the fact that American innovation and technology were far greater than the Soviet's. When Reagan introduced plans for an American strategic defense in space, the Soviets would have taken this seriously, believing that the US, unlike them could very likely develop a working SDI soon. Also, the Soviet response to SDI was to channel more of its funds and research into their research and defense programs.59 Given the state of their economy, the Soviet reaction to SDI only made their financial problems worse.
The threat of SDI also gave the US leverage in arms control negotiations. This was possibly the single most important factor in giving the US an advantage in arms race. Unlike during the détente of the Nixon and Carter years, in which the US often sold out to the Soviet Union, Reagan's arms negotiations with Gorbachev marked a turning point. No longer would the Soviets get the better end of the deal, which often ended up mostly restricting the US. With the shadow of SDI looming at the tables, the Soviet Union often ended up with the "short straw". SDI became the focal point of American-Soviet arms negotiations. Reagan met Gorbachev for the first time on November 19th - 20th in 1985, in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to this meeting, Gorbachev was strongly betting that pressure from the Soviets, some American allies, and from the US Congress itself, would result in the elimination or at least some limitation being place on Reagan's SDI. 60 Rumors and talks about SDI were top priorities in the Kremlin prior to Geneva, and many shared Gorbachev's confidence. Instead, Gorbachev returned home as the fool, with Reagan refusing to even give up any ground on SDI. The two were unable to reach a consensus and had a direct clash over SDI.61 Gorbachev thought Reagan would use it to gain nuclear superiority and first-strike capacity. To this Reagan countered, "find a way to trust one another enough to begin to reduce arms, or have an all out arms race. That's a race you can't win. There is no way we are going to let you maintain superiority over us."62 Reagan's passionate determination and belief in SDI would not be the first time he would refuse to back down. The Soviets, still determined to get SDI out of the picture, were getting desperate.
A year later on October 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev met again in Reykjavik, Iceland. Once again, Gorbachev underestimated Reagan's strong devotion and stubbornness to SDI. The failure of the meeting to produce any treaty or agreement demonstrated how scared and desperate Gorbachev and the Soviets were regarding SDI. At this meeting, Gorbachev agreed to reduce all intercontinental and intermediate range missiles by 50 percent, with the eventual goal of reducing nearly most of these missiles.63 There was a condition however, and it was that Reagan would abandon his SDI program and stop funding its development. The fact that he was willing to make such a drastic reduction in exchange for the termination of SDI, shows how much the Soviet Union valued SDI. If it were not a major threat to them, there would be no reason for SDI to have been the top priority at Reykjavik meeting. SDI was a big enough issue for the Soviet Union to bargain so much.64 Much to their surprise, Reagan outright rejected Gorbachev's offer, and was even angered at first, as Gorbachev had tried to set him up. What appeared to be a promising meeting resulted in Gorbachev ambushing him Reagan with a proposal to can SDI. Reagan knew the Soviets had a history of evading arms treaties, and SDI was the only thing that seemed to be keeping the Soviets at their heels, wiling to compromise more and more. His refusal at Reykjavik is often said to be the real turning point, or the nail in the coffin, the major blow dealt to the Soviets in which Gorbachev's plan backfired and SDI defeated the Soviets.65 Chief of Staff Donald Regan commented that "To stay in the arms race, the Russians had to spend a lot more money because Reagan had committed the United States, with all its wealth and technical capacity, to developing SDI, a defensive system that made the entire Soviet missile force useless...This meant that Reagan had been dealt the winning hand."66
The Soviet Union was left with no other option but to abandon the SDI struggle. At the next meeting to sign a treaty, SDI was not brought up, resulting in a successful treaty that is believed to have marked the end of the arms race. Signed between December 7 - 10, 1987 in Washington D.C., the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) reduced total nuclear arsenals by 5 percent, and called for stocks of intermediate range missiles with nuclear warheads to be eliminated.67 After further pressure from Reagan, Gorbachev announced to the United Nation on December 1988 that he was reducing the size of the Soviet Army by 500,000, and withdrawing several army divisions from Eastern Europe.68 Once again this is an example of the leverage gained from having the power of SDI. Negotiations continued between newly elected President George Bush, who signed the START I Treaty on July 1991. This treaty promised to reduce the amount of nuclear warheads possessed by both countries by 25 percent.69 By now however, the Soviet Union was virtually dead, having lost its territories. Gorbachev finally resigned on December 25, 1991 and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Lastly, SDI can be attributed to the poor Soviet military spending that led to its economic collapse. Despite the fact that the Soviet Union was a communist nation, which meant mass inefficiency, SDI contributed a significant factor in accelerating its bankruptcy. Some estimates suggest that the Soviet Union spent as much as $50 billion in research to develop their own counter SDI program.70 This is a lot considering the US originally planned to spend $30 billion for SDI, and ended up receiving less from Congress each year than requested. The horrible Soviet economy did not help the situation. Throughout the 80s, much like the 70s, Soviet spending as a percent of their GDP far exceeded that of the US. Never did US defense spending exceed 8 percent of the GDP. Soviet spending on the other hand, never went below 15 percent, and even reached peak levels of 40 percent.71
It is odd that Time Magazine named Mikhail Gorbachev "Man of the Decade", but failed to give any credit to SDI, let alone Ronald Reagan. Even Gorbachev had stated that his reforms were the result of internal pressures and a need from the people. The evidence and logic shows that SDI, and of course, Ronald Reagan were the most responsible for ending the Soviet's evil empire. Anything can be said about reforms and weakness from within, but the fact remains that these Soviet reactions were all in some way a result of SDI. The troubles that some of the American left will go through to discredit the positive American role in the world is amazing. Not surprisingly, they will give more credit to Communists for breaking apart the Soviet Union than the man responsible for taking a hard-line approach and refusing to negotiate. Yet, the real people freed from the wrath of communism have for the most part been rightfully thankful, cheering on Reagan and dedicating countless things to him, knowing that it was his policies and SDI which most intimidated those in the Kremlin. It is sad that the freedom achieved by so many of these people and countries is instead attributed to the same system that oppressed them. In the ongoing war in Iraq, a similar situation has developed. The people seem to be rightfully thankful, whereas many liberals continue to denounce the war effort, despite its positive results. In the end, it was "New Europe" including many nations freed from Soviet rule, that chose to support the US, whereas "Old Europe" and Russia did not. As a final thought, there is something that can be learned from this. Although SDI was far ahead of its time, the concept of "peace through strength" still holds true. A strong military for defense can be crucial, and extensive defense programs should be researched. A space based strategic defense could protect the US from virtually any missile strike. With the rising threats of radical Islamic terrorism, North Korea, potential from Pakistan, a national missile defense system wouldn't hurt.
1 Earle Rice Jr., The Cold War: Collapse of Communism, (San Diego, 2000), p. 6.
2 Stephane Courtois, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, (Cambridge, MA, 1999), p. 78.
3 Stephane Courtois, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, (Cambridge, MA, 1999), p. 78.
4 Ronald Reagan, Speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, March 8, 1983.
5 George J. Mitchell, Not For America Alone, (New York, 1997), p. 52.
6 Patrick Glynn, Closing Pandora's Box, (New York, 1992), p. 109.
7 Glynn, p. 110.
8 Glynn, p. 126.
9 Rice, p. 13.
10 Rice, p. 16.
11 Glynn, p. 141.
12 Deborah Welch Larson, Anatomy of Mistrust, (Ithaca, NY, 1997), p. 37.
13 Larson, p. 60.
14 Mitchell, p. 156.
15 Mitchell, p. 157.
16 Larson, p. 146.
17 Glynn, p. 218.
18 Sanford Lakoff, Herbert F. York, A Shield in Space?, (Berkeley, CA, 1989), p. 158.
19 Lakoff, p. 171.
20 Lakoff, p. 172.
21 Rice, p. 39.
22 Glynn, p. 259.
23 Glynn, p. 261.
24 Glynn, p. 244.
25 Rice, p. 37.
26 Henry Kissinger as cited by Larson, p. 189.
27 Glynn, p. 270.
28 Larson, p. 191.
30 Glynn, p. 296.
31 Lakoff, p. 180.
32 Glynn, p. 296.
33 Peter Hannaford, "Reagan's Winning Strategy", Human Events, (June 27, 1997), pp. 24 - 25.
34 Michael R. Beschloss, Strobe Talbot, At The Highest Levels, (Boston, 1993), p. 113.
35 Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, as cited by Lakoff, p. 10.
36 Philip J. Briggs, "The Reagan Reversal", American Political Science Review, (September, 1999) pp. 71-72.
37 Glynn, p. 350
38 Elizabeth Pugliese, as cited in "Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War", History in Dispute, 1999, Vol. 2.
39 Philip M. Boffey, William J. Broad, et al, Claiming the Heavens: The New York Times Complete Guide to the Star Wars Debate, (New York, 1988), p. 57.
40 Boffey, p. 211
41 Boffey, p. 14.
42 Lakoff, p. 92
43 Steven Anzovin, The Star Wars Debate, (New York, 1986), p. 79.
44 Anzovin, p. 79.
45 John McLaughlin, "Star Wars and Politics", National Review, (December 31, 1985), p. 22. (microfilm)
46 Ronald Reagan, as cited by "Remarks on the Veto of the National Defense Authorization Act", Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan 1988-99, (Washington, 1991) p. 1013.
47 Ronald Reagan, as cited by "Remarks on the Veto of the National Defense Authorization Act", Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan 1988-99, (Washington, 1991), p. 1014.
48 "The Cold War: Thaw", American Decades: 1980 - 1989, (Detroit, 1996), p. 262
49 "The Cold War: Thaw", American Decades: 1980 - 1989, (Detroit, 1996), p. 263.
50 Lawrence T. Caldwell, "United States-Soviet Relations and Arms Control", Current History, (October, 1987), p. 306. (microfilm)
51 Mikhail Gorbachev, as cited by "SDI and the Collapse of the Soviet Union", New Perspectives Quarterly, (Winter 1996), p. 18.
52 Strobe Talbott, as cited by Joshua Muravchik, "How the Cold War Really Ended", Commentary, (November 1994), p. 40.
53 Richard Ned Lebow, "Reagan and the Russians", The Atlantic Monthly, (July, 1991), p. 35. (microfilm)
54 Lewbow, p. 35
55 Muravchik, p. 46.
56 Victor Orlov, "Gorbachev's Little Secret", National Review, (November 7, 1988), p. 46. (microfilm)
57 Orlov, p. 46
58 Lakoff, p. 112
59 Glynn, p. 333
60 "Star Wars: A Nightmare For Gorbachev's Land", US News & World Report, (October 21, 1985), p. 44. (microfilm)
61 Francis J. Gavin, The New York Times Twentieth Century in Review: The Cold War, (Chicago, 2001), vol. 2, p. 827.
62 Ronald Reagan, as cited by Peter Hannaford, "Reagan's SDI Helped Bring Cold War to an End", Human Events, (March 17, 1995), p.16.
63 Edwin Meese III, "The Man Who Won The Cold War", Policy Review, (July/August, 1992), p. 40.
64 Paul Du Quenoy, "End of the Cold War", History In Dispute, 2000, vol. 6.
65 Meese III, pp.40-41.
66 Donald Regan, as cited by Meese III, p. 41.
67 Rice, p. 42.
68 Meese III, p. 41.
69 Lakoff, p. 353.
70 Quenoy, p. 65.
71 Quenoy, p. 65.
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