Why Star Wars Is Still Aloft


Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War

By Frances FitzGerald

Simon & Schuster 592pp $30

Reading Frances FitzGerald's new book about Ronald Reagan and his space-based missile-defense program, I began to think that maybe the author is living in the wrong era and working in the wrong profession. Technological references aside, Way Out There in the Blue reads as if it had been written in the Middle Ages by a Talmudic scholar, one who would consider a small passage from the Torah and produce pages of exegesis. FitzGerald, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam book, Fire in the Lake, and other works, regularly offers several lengthy and competing interpretations of Reagan's acts, from his 1979 visit to the North American Aerospace Defense Command to his 1983 "Star Wars" speech--two events that took on mythic proportions for the program's backers.

Her search for motives leads her into long digressions on such topics as the evolution of Republican foreign policy since the late 19th century and academic research on how Hollywood movie scripts influenced Reagan's policies. This panoramic book is everything you wanted to know--and maybe more--about Star Wars, Reagan, and the squabbling within his Administration.

That said, the author provides a sophisticated, often well-written primer on a $60 billion project that has become the most expensive research effort in U.S. history. And FitzGerald's timing is impeccable: President Clinton is slated to decide later this year whether to deploy in several years a missile-defense system. The betting is that to deprive the GOP of an election issue, Clinton will give the system the green light. FitzGerald considers that sheer folly.

That's because, FitzGerald says, Reagan was not motivated by factors connected with the technical feasibility of the Strategic Defense Initiative, as Star Wars was formally known. A variety of other factors were at work, she reports. They ranged from Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain--a movie that revolved around an anti-missile missile--to the influence of physicist Edward Teller and some of Reagan's early financial backers, to ideology, principle, and politics. She ultimately concludes that others conceived of Star Wars as a bargaining chip for negotiations with Moscow and a device to defuse the growing nuclear freeze movement. Reagan's role became that of huckster--hence the book's title, drawn from the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman.

FitzGerald also probes the Reagan Administration's inner workings on arms control. She shows how hard-liners such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and his aide, Richard Perle, paralyzed efforts by pragmatic Secretary of State George P. Shultz to negotiate accords with the Soviets. These fissures remain in the GOP, raising questions about the claims of George W. Bush's coterie that his Administration would have a more coherent foreign policy than that of the inconsistent Clinton-Gore team.

In her final chapter, FitzGerald brings the story up to the present. But her discussion of the current debate is more perfunctory than her nuanced discourse on the events of the 1980s. That's a shame, because someone with FitzGerald's intellectual candlepower could shed light on today's more complex strategic situation. It was relatively easy to manage deterrence when only two powers had nuclear arsenals that mattered. If they both realized the weapons shouldn't be used, a stable peace was achievable. Now, the calculations are far different.

For one thing, a space-oriented defense is arguably needed now to protect the increasingly important commercial satellite infrastructure--something that didn't exist in 1983. And in some ways, the SDI supporters' hand has been strengthened. A mechanism for self-defense is always more morally justifiable than dependence on offensive weapons. But back in the 1980s, a foolproof defense for the U.S. population against thousands of incoming Soviet ICBMs was unachievable, contrary to SDI backers' claims. The goal then was to protect the U.S. missile arsenal in order to allow retaliation against a Soviet first strike. This reality left backers with few moral arguments. Today, though, even some ardent critics of SDI think it's possible to achieve the current, more limited goal: knocking out a handful of incoming rogue-state weapons. And since rogue states would likely target cities instead of U.S. missiles, which they have no hope of erasing, the system would protect people.

Nevertheless, even if today's program is doable and morally supportable, that doesn't mean it's wise. Will perceived threats from Iran or North Korea still exist by the time that a defensive system can be put into place? Will moving ahead prompt Beijing to expand its increasingly sophisticated missile capability, thereby creating a new long-term threat? If so, should the U.S. bring China into strategic arms reduction talks with Russia?

Why Star Wars Is Still Aloft

Not everything has changed, however. It's always easier and less expensive to add offensive capability that will overwhelm whatever defense the enemy builds. That was true when the Soviets could ramp up a huge arsenal, and it's true now, when poor countries such as Iran and North Korea have cheap offensive weapons systems. But after 17 years of megabucks spending, the U.S. still lacks a defensive system.

In the end, though, it's unlikely that any of these issues will carry the day--because of something else that hasn't changed. As was true during the Reagan era, politics, rather than strategic analysis, will determine the outcome. Missile defense is a GOP Holy Grail. It has stayed alive despite all odds. And chances are it will continue to survive.

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