Ronald Reagan and the Space Defense Initiative

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed “The Space Defense Initiative.” This initiative would be a missile defense system in outer space which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles. Would this event lead to the end of the Cold War? Would it help to bring down the Soviet Union? Would it lead to the US winning the Cold War? Or would it take the space race to new and dangerous heights?

The Cold War was a constant state of tension between the United States of America and its allies versus the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its allies. At the center of this tension was the development of nuclear weapons. For many years, both sides lived in fear that a nuclear war could break out at any time. In the 35 plus years before Reagan was President, the nuclear age dominated American foreign affairs. President Franklin Roosevelt started the nuclear age upon the urging of Albert Einstein. Einstein believed the Germans were in the process of developing such a weapon. The Manhattan Project would launch the nuclear age. Upon  FDR’s death in 1945, President Truman used the weapon to end the war in the Pacific against the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is the only time atomic weapons have been used in history.

At the end of World War II, only the US had the bomb. Within a few years, the Soviets would have their own. President Truman came up with his own policy, by way of George F. Kennan, of dealing with the USSR called “Containment.” Each Successive President came up with his own “Doctrine” or way of dealing with the USSR.  President Eisenhower had the “Eisenhower Doctrine” , “Massive Retaliation”, and “Brinksmanship”. John F. Kennedy used diplomacy to end the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the 1970s, President Nixon began a policy of what became known as “détente” which is French for lessening of tensions. The start of a treaty process called S.A.L.T. (Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty) began. When Reagan becomes president in 1981, the US and the USSR still are in the midst of the Cold War. While the 70s were not kind to the US, Reagan’s election brought hope and promise to a country suffering through a recession, the “malaise” of the 1970s, and the failure of Vietnam.

Reagan instilled “a new hope” in Americans. He made them feel good about themselves. This was a needed thing for a country at the time. He also talked tough about the Soviets. He was one who was not about to back down. In 1982, he called the USSR an “EVIL EMPIRE” at the British House of Commons. On March 23, 1983, President Reagan spoke directly with the American public about his new vision for US security. It would soon become known as the “Star Wars” speech.

The subject I want to discuss with you, peace and national security, is both timely and important. Timely, because I’ve reached a decision which offers anew hope for our children in the 21st century, a decision I’ll tell you about in a few minutes. And important because there’s a very big decision that you must make for yourselves. This subject involves the most basic duty that any President and any people share, the duty to protect and strengthen the peace.
Tonight, consistent with our obligations of the ABM treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies, I’m taking an important first step. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles. This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves.
The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor. We maintain our strength in order to deter and defend against aggression — to preserve freedom and peace.

The Reaction was swift and cartoonish.

At the time, the Soviets did not know what to make of Reagan. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov stated: “I can assure you that the Soviet Union will continue to exert the maximum effort to keep the sinister plans for transferring the arms race into space from becoming reality.” 

How it worked:

–A satellite in space detects the launch
–It sends a signal to ground or sea based defenses
–Missiles are sent to  intercept
–Lasers could also be used to shoot down the incoming missile

Andropov would soon give way to a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan and Gorbachev began a series of summits  from 1985-1987 including Reykjavik and Geneva.

“When we first met in Geneva and there was a break after the first round of talks, I came back back to my colleagues and I called Reagan a “dinosaur.” I came back during the break, and they asked, “What is your impression?” And I said: “A dinosaur.” I had the impression that I’d met a caveman. But I was wrong: Reagan was a really tough conservative, a person who put an end to the Vietnamese syndrome in American society and made America very powerful.”

Mikhail Gorbachev would state in Reykjavik: “OK, let’s not even leave a hundred missiles, let’s abolish them completely and go for the zero option!’ This came as a shock! Everyone was surprised.
Donald Regan, White House chief of staff recalls
Reagan hit the table and said, ‘Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place! That’s exactly what I wanna do and if you wanna do away with all the weapons, I’ll agree to do away with all the weapons!’ ‘All weapons? Of course, we’ll do away with all weapons!’ ‘Good! That’s great! Now, now we have an agreement!’ ‘Yes! But you must confine SDI to the laboratory!’ ‘No, I won’t!’ said Reagan. ‘No way! SDI continues! I told you that! I am never going to give up SDI!'”
Reagan would not give up “Star Wars” in the process. At Reykjavik, the talks broke off for a while. Secretary of State George Schultz recalls: “Gorbachev pressed and pressed and, at one moment, President Reagan, who was very clear in his mind about this, wrote a little note and pushed it over at me. It said, ‘George, am I right?’ I read this note and I said ‘Absolutely!’ and passed it back.”

Many saw Reykjavik as a failure except those involved.  Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet Foreign Ministry said:

“At first glance, I would say that Reykjavik almost failed because we were unable to sign an agreement. But later, as we went to our press conference, Gorbachev and I spoke in the car and we agreed that it was not a failure. And it was at that press conference that Gorbachev uttered a phrase which became famous, that it had been ‘an intellectual breakthrough‘ in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.”

At the summit in Geneva, Switzerland in 1987, a historic agreement was reached between Reagan and Gorbachev. Called the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty, the result would be a further lessening of tensions between the two superpowers. The treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges, defined as between 300-3400 miles.

The INF Treaty and Star Wars are important but they are just one piece of the puzzle. Policies by Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and then Reagan all helped to bring down the USSR. Gorbachev states: “The state of the Soviet Union and its society could be described very simply with a phrase used by people across the country, ‘We can’t go on living like this any longer!’ That applied to everything. The economy was stagnating, there were shortages and the quality of goods was very poor.”

Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet Foreign Minister said,

“I remember very clearly what Gorbachev said at that time. He said, ‘There are two roads we can take. We can either tighten our belts very, very tightly and reduce consumption — which the people will no longer tolerate — or we can try to defuse international tension and overcome the disagreement between East and West. And so free up the gigantic sums that are spent on armaments in the Soviet Union.'”

In the end, Star Wars helped to bring about a treaty but the USSR was well down the path of ending. 2 years after the historic INF Treaty, the Berlin Wall would collapse. 2 years later, the USSR would disband. But, Star Wars lives on along with Reagan’s legacy.

Here you go Joe. Enjoy!

For Further Reading
Reagan’s War
The Origins of SDI
CNN: Cold War Episode XXII



  1. Hey can I use this blog as a source for my History Fair Project? This has alot of good information, along with the videos.

  2. You can, but you would be better to use the sources I cited like Reagan’s War, his speech and the CNN Video. All the quotes come from the video from individuals involved in the talks.

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