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Of Nukes, Nuts and Tarot Cards: Reagan Revisited

11.27.2000 | BOOKS

Way Out There in the Blue:
Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War

by Frances Fitzgerald
Simon and Schuster, 2000

As a kid, Ronald Reagan scared the hell out of me. Originally the fear was personal, the way a clown or smiling puppet frightens a child. But by 1982 I came to associate his visage with the cultural climate of Casper Weinberger's America, which was qualitatively more terrifying than any Jack-o-lantern. At eight years old and a virgin to newspapers, I knew this wrinkled man with the pompadour was responsible for the bloodless fear I carried to bed each night, the fear that I would awake to the flash of a nuclear blast, and spend my remaining two weeks alive bald, nursing burn wounds and wretching up my large intestine. I am confident that a lifelong commitment to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party was borne out of this childhood experience.

It is admitted across the political spectrum that the world came closer to nuclear war during Reagan's first administration that it had since the Cuban missile crisis. From this admission two opposing camps line up against each other. Conservatives claim that by skillfully pushing their politico-military full-court press, they broke the Soviet system and "won the Cold War." Liberals argue that the witless Reagan build-up merely prolonged the Cold War and needlessly brought the world to the brink of holocaust. After surveying a good deal of the literature on the subject, I am prone to agree with the latter interpretation. After reading Frances Fitzgerald's recent synthesis of a wider cross-section of this literature, I am doubly so.

But Way Out There In the Blue is no partisan tract. Fitzgerald the sober historian has amassed a mountain of material drawn from memoirs, interviews and declassified documents. Much of this material speaks for itself, and offers a stark inside account of the Reagan White House and the hawks that dominated the national-security bureaucracy. The book is multifaceted, and can be read as a number of histories: of arms control in the 80s, of the Strategic Defense Initiative, of the internal politics of the Republican foreign policy establishment, of Reagan's relationship with Gorbechev. Fitzgerald's weaving of these complex threads into a single tale is--but for sometimes confusing chronological jumps --nothing short of masterful.

Reagan himself emerges as a minor character; almost epiphenomenal. Although known as a bloody-fanged dove eater throughout his political career--from urging in 1965 to "pave" North Vietnam and "put parking stripes on it" to virulently attacking Nixon/Ford détente in 1976--by the time he gets to the White House he appears as the bumbling, clueless elderly of caricature, tending toward a nuclear utopianism and passively swallowing whatever his manipulative advisors suggest. Throughout Fitzgerald's narrative Reagan is merely pathetic: he enters office not even trying to understanding basic policy and leaves it telling an incredulous Gorbechev stories culled from People magazine.

Reagan's advisors are the key to grasping the acute turn taken by US foreign policy after 1980. For Reagan's was the first Cold War administration whose defense advisors were pulled from outside the mainstream. They were not representatives of an intra-party coalition and had no respect for the assumptions and carefully drawn lines of previous governments. Rather, they graduated from the Curtis LeMay school of strategic thinking, and represented the extreme right-wing of the party, many coming from the neo-conservative pressure group the Committee on the Present Danger. This nest of sharp-beaked ideological hawks included assistant secretaries of defense Fred Ikle and Richard Perle, CIA director William "contra kid" Casey, in-house Sovietologist Richard Pipes, Deputy Defense Secretary Frank "Sure We Can Win A Nuclear War" Carlucci and Eugene Rostow, the enemy of arms control and disarmament who was confirmed as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Leader of the pack was Secretary of Defense Casper "Cap" Weinberger. A defense novice when named to his post--he didn't even know the difference between defcon 3 and defcon 4--Weinberger soon adopted the crusading rhetoric of his staff, preaching the dangers of arms control and the peril of the increasing Soviet threat. He led the charge in passing the enormous arms budgets of the early 80s, which in real dollars were larger than those at the peak of the Korean and Vietnam wars. The numbers were only logical in the context of Defense Department rhetoric, ominously proclaiming that the US was in a "pre-war" situation, one that called for national mobilization in the areas of offensive weapons and civil defense. That the CIA knew Soviet defense spending to have leveled out in the mid-70s, and that our solid-fuel missiles were superior to liquid-fuel Soviet ones didn't matter. The Reagan men were intent on an arms build-up, based upon the fiction of the "window of vulnerability," and an arms build-up there was.

This build-up, together with Reagan's refusal to negotiate an arms control agreement, was the impetus for the freeze movement which spread like wildfire across the US and (mostly Northern) Europe in the mid 80s. It is here that the Strategic Defense Initiative comes to the fore. Although the earliest variant of missile defense dates back to WW II, when the Allies feared the Germans would develop missile technology, the issue had largely been dead since Nixon signed the ABM Treaty in 1972, which outlawed the deployment of missile defense. This document enshrined the logic that offense and defense are intimately related and thus laid the basis for all subsequent arms control.

But Reagan didn't care about the intricacies of deterrence theory behind the ABM Treaty; he liked the idea of a missile shield. His advisors did too, and exhumed it for political purposes in 1983. For it was the political necessity of countering the freeze movement that drove Reagan to give his famous Star Wars speech, calling upon scientists to create a defensive weapon to make nuclear arms "impotent and obsolete." By co-opting the language of the freeze movement and proposing SDI as an aid to arms control--which it wasn't--the Reagan people were able to outflank the peace movement and run for re-election without looking like Dr. Strangelove. It worked, and Reagan won in the biggest landslide in US history.

The interesting thing about SDI is that it was a sham for all seasons--and everybody knew it, except the Russians and the American people. For the Defense Department, it was a means of breaking the ABM treaty and undermining past and future arms control agreements. For the Democrats, it was a bargaining chip to be traded away in strategic weapons negotiations. Only the napping Reagan and a slightly senile Edward Teller seemed to believe that X-ray lasers would soon be blowing ICBM's out of the atmosphere. Weinberger consistently lied about the progress of the program to Reagan (and Congress), who then sold it starry-eyed to the American people, who then demanded it of Congress, who reluctantly agreed to fund the program with billions of dollars. What exactly was being funded was never very clear.

But the Democratic Congress was mistaken to think the program would later be curtailed for Soviet concessions. Even though Secretary of State George Shultz bent over backwards to make an offense-defensive swap with the Soviets in which SDI was forever consigned to the laboratory in exchange for the removal of Russia's intermediate range missiles (INF) from Europe, Reagan refused to limit the scope and ambitions of SDI. This was the sticking point for arms control talks until the end of Reagan's second term, and to the extent that Shultz tried to work through it, he emerges as the sole knight of reason who fought valiantly but was constantly outflanked by the hard-liners.

It was only when Gorbechev, at the urging of Andrei Sakharov, saw that Star Wars was an unworkable bluff did a breakthrough occur. At this point talks were "untied" from SDI and an INF treaty was finally worked out, resulting in the dismantling of a mere few hundred missiles. Although important, it was a minor treaty. No drastic cuts were ever made under Reagan, pictures of him smiling with Gorby notwithstanding. The START Treaty would wait until 1991.

Under the shadow of the SDI phantom, Fitzgerald offers a detailed analysis of arms control negotiations at Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow. Any non-expert who has studied the arcana of arms talks during a condensed period of time knows that it is like watching speed chess. It gets confusing fast. This is especially true for the Reagan years, as conflicts occurred not only with the Russians but between competing factions within the cabinet and Congress. Fitzgerald does an admirable of simplifying the issues, but it remains difficult reading.

Given that we are still living with the live nuclear triggers built during its timeline, Way Out There in the Blue makes for painful history. A goofy old man became enchanted with the idea of putting an astrodome over the US, was convinced by scheming war-hungry advisors that this was possible, and then proceeded to link all arms control to his fantasy, all the while pushing ahead with a major arms build-up. The result almost ended the world.

It is a timely story, this. Moving into the next century there is a firm Republican led bipartisan consensus that an ABM system must be built, and damn the consequences. The arms contractors are riding confidently towards their dream of nuclearizing space, and it seems that without a mass movement against them they will get their billions. The Russians are back to believing (just enough) in the potential of such a system to give the US first-strike capability, and are threatening to pull out of all arms treaties if the US proceeds with deployment. The system itself remains, in the words of Lewis Lapham, "built entirely of metaphors," but in America, to the rest of the world's increasing dismay, this would seem to be enough, yet again. That we went through this whole charade only fifteen years ago is funny. That the arms control process will almost certainly not survive the sequel is even funnier.

You see I can laugh about this madness now. I shed all my frozen tears back in 1983.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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