The Strategic Defense Debate: A Previously Unpublished Interview with Ronald Reagan, As Conducted by Sam Donaldson

A Reverie, by George Weigel

Author’s Note: This astonishing interview with President Reagan, recently conducted by Sam Donaldson of ABC News, has come into my possession through means best left to the reader’s imagination. Donaldson, whom cartoonist Garry Trudeau has aptly lampooned as the “Human Megaphone,” is a notoriously crusty questioner; one would like to have seen him in a medieval disputation with St. Thomas Aquinas. But his crustiness is an advantage in this instance, for he can usually be counted on to pose the hardest possible questions in ways that accurately limn the concerns of the American media culture (which, in turn, almost infallibly represent the preoccupations of that congeries of forces in our politics which Peter Berger and others have labeled the “New Class”). In any event, the record of Mr. Donaldson’s discussion of strategic defense with President Reagan seemed too important to be left in private hands. Thus, I offer the following leak in the hopes that it might help reorient a national debate that has, thus far, generated considerably more heat than light.

Sam Donaldson: How can you even consider a plan like your so-called “Star Wars” system? All this does is take the arms race into the heavens. Isn’t there enough danger from nuclear weapons here on earth?

Ronald Reagan: I’m glad you’ve brought this up, Sam, because your question gives me the opportunity to clear up several confusions at once. First, the “arms race,” as you insist on calling it, is already in the heavens, and has been since the Soviet Union first flight-tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. ICBMs and SLBMs traverse the heavens in their ballistic trajectory. Both the United States and the Soviet Union maintain fleets of reconnaissance satellites which carry out important intelligence functions: they help us monitor compliance (or the lack thereof) with arms control agreements, and they’re used for targeting the offensive missiles which both countries have in abundance. Moreover, the USSR has already flight-tested, against hard targets, an anti-satellite weapon. Weapons competition between the US and the USSR is now, and has been for some time, conducted “in the heavens.” The real issue is whether space-based weaponry could help move us from security through mutual threat to security through defensive capabilities. The argument about “taking the arms race into the heavens” is either based on serious misinformation, or is an attempt to use a powerful image to score political debating points.


And speaking of debating points, what do you mean by the phrase “so-called Star Wars systems”? Who calls the Strategic Defense Initiative “Star Wars,” and why do they do it? The Soviet Union uses the phrase for its own propaganda purposes. The American press uses it to be cute, or to send a subliminal message about its own strategic preferences. I like George Lukas’s films as well as the next fellow, but I really think we would all be better served by avoiding phrases like “Star Wars.” They obscure a lot more than they illuminate.

Donaldson: How do you know that “Star Wars,” I mean, the Strategic Defense Initiative, is going to work?

Reagan: I don’t. And neither does anyone else. The Strategic Defense Initiative is a research program. Its goal, as I have said any number of times, is to determine whether new technologies, which are far advanced from those available in 1972 when the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was signed, might provide a means for countering the threat posed by offensive nuclear weapons. Clearly, there’s a lot to be investigated here. SDI won’t solve the problem of a terrorist with a nuclear device in a briefcase. SDI technologies may or may not be effective against cruise missiles, and against theater nuclear weapons and depressed-trajectory SLBMs. On the other hand, there is increasing evidence that technologies for effective defense against ballistic missiles may be possible. And since these weapons, particularly the newer generations of Soviet ICBMs, are the root of the instability in the strategic environment today, it seems perfectly sensible to me that we should explore means to reverse that problem. If you really want to catch up on the technological arguments, I’d suggest your reading Dr. Robert Jastrow’s essay, “The War Against ‘Star Wars’ ” in the December 1984 issue of Commentary, and the exchange of correspondence on that essay between Jastrow and his critics in the March 1985 issue of that journal.

But beyond this, there are two more important points to be made. The first is that the Soviet Union clearly believes that strategic defense is a possibility. They’re investing heavily (and far beyond what we’ve spent to date) in their own research programs, which would seem to suggest that they think they’re on to something. And their implacable insistence at the Geneva negotiations that we abandon SDI suggests that they think we’re on to something. The leaders of the Soviet Union are not fools, and their keen interest in both pursuing their own research and stopping ours should be taken seriously as evidence for the potential feasibility of strategic defense.

But the second point is even more crucial: the technological argument is perhaps the least important dimension of this entire debate. For even if we knew with certainty that technology could provide a credible “point defense” of our missiles, sub pens, and airfields, or beyond that, a credible “area defense” of population centers, we’d still be left with the question, “Should we go down this road, given other factors?”

Donaldson: What other factors?

Reagan: There are at least three other questions involved in the SDI controversy, beyond the technological debate. There’s a political question: what would be the impact of strategic defense on the overall relationship between the superpowers, and beyond us, on the delicate web of tensions and relationships in the international arena? There’s a profoundly important moral argument: should we do this, given the possible consequences of unilateral development and deployment, or the interesting (and possibly revolutionary) consequences of parallel development and deployment? Then there’s the strategic question: what would the development and deployment of effective defense systems do to deterrence, and to the fragile peace-of-a-sort that has been built over the past forty years? This is a very serious question, because the peace-of-a-sort we have maintained is clearly preferable to war. Deterrence has provided a crude, but effective, regulatory mechanism in world affairs; the possibility of mutual destruction has set limits on superpower actions that might otherwise have led to a general war (as in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1973 Yom Kippur War). We should be very careful about altering the strategic regime, to be sure.

But we should also understand how fragile a reed deterrence is. New offensive technologies threaten to unravel the structure of deterrence. The risks of accident, miscalculation, or sheer stupidity remain perilously high; do we really want to bet the future of the human adventure on the thin margin of human rationality and competence? Then there is the hard fact that an open-ended commitment to deterrence runs straight across the grain of American political culture. We are not, and never have been, a people comfortable with Realpolitik calculations, which are required to maintain a deterrence system indefinitely. If the American people cannot see a way beyond our present impasse, in which our security rests on our capacity to mortally threaten our adversary’s entire society, then the siren song of isolationism is going to be heard throughout the land, sooner or later…

Donaldson: Well, let me interrupt you right there, sir. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t defend deterrence and spend billions on nuclear weapons modernization on the one hand, and reject deterrence while holding out some kind of Holy Grail through strategic defense on the other. Which is it, Mr. President: deterrence or “Star Wars”?

Reagan: To coin a phrase, Sam, there you go again. Look, think about this seriously for a minute. Deterrence, as the Catholic bishops argued in their 1983 pastoral letter, is an interim mechanism. Operating properly, deterrence helps stabilize the strategic environment so that arms reduction negotiations have some chance of success. The SDI, should it lead to feasible technologies, won’t result in deployed defensive systems for many years. We’ve got to maintain strategic stability in the interim. Our stated preference, which is the whole thrust of our position on offensive weapons at Geneva, is to achieve strategic stability at dramatically lower levels of offensive capability. This was the recommendation of the Scowcroft Commission in 1983; most of the media focused on the Commission’s MX conclusions, but the real importance of that report was its proposal for arms reduction through de-MIRVing. Reducing MIRVed missiles makes it less likely that a pre-emptive first strike would be even theoretically possible. But even if we were successful in negotiating a radical reduction in MIRVed missiles, or even their elimination, you would still get to a point, along the path of arms reductions, where first strike would rear its ugly head again. Suppose each side had, say, 200 single-warhead missiles, a figure bruited about by some “minimum deterrence” strategists; you could then contemplate a pre-emptive attack on the other side’s remaining missiles without risking your entire society. So even with dramatic reduction in swords, shields are going to be necessary.

My point is this: there is no necessary contradiction between strategic stability, a program of arms reduction, and strategic defense. If we’re really going to work ourselves out of the bind we’re now in, we have to be working on all three fronts simultaneously.

Donaldson: But, Mr. President, you surely don’t expect the Soviet Union to sit on its hands while we develop the capacity to negate their principal strategic assets, do you?

Reagan: I don’t, and they aren’t. As I’ve said before, the Soviets are hard at work on their own strategic defense research, a point they conveniently neglect to make in the fantastic campaign of anti-SDI propaganda they’re conducting these days. But beyond this, our negotiators at Geneva, particularly in the space weapons part of the talks, are actively trying to engage the Soviet representatives in a forthright discussion of how we might alter the strategic regime together, so that the net result over time is security through defense rather than security through offensive threat. We’ve made this quite clear in our White House booklet on SDI, which states flatly that

In pursuing the Strategic Defense Initiative, the United States is striving to fashion a future environment that serves the security interests of the United States and our allies, as well as the Soviet Union. Consequently, should it prove possible to develop a highly capable defense against ballistic missiles, we would envision parallel United States and Soviet deployments, with the outcome being enhanced mutual security and international stability.

Donaldson: Come on now, Mr. President; you really don’t expect me, or anyone else, to take this “mutual security” business seriously, do you?

Reagan: Actually, Sam, I do. One of the really odd things about this entire SDI debate so far has been that people like you try to make me look soft on the Soviets. Mr. Mondale tried it in our second debate last year, and it didn’t seem to get him very far.

What I mean by “mutual security” is this. No single nation today can guarantee its citizens that which the nation-state evolved to provide: security. You just can’t make the guarantee. You do what you can, and we’ve made it through forty years thus far, which is no mean achievement. But human ingenuity has created the circumstances in which there will be mutual security, or no security in any but the most tenuous terms. I don’t expect SDI to bring on the millennium. I don’t expect, or want, a return to all the self-delusions of detente. I do expect that SDI might offer an unprecedented lever to get the Soviet Union to join with us on a mutual exploration of how the strategic regime might be changed in a coordinated way, in which the net result is enhanced security for everyone.

Along these lines, what I’d most like to see come out of this first round of negotiations in Geneva is an agreement to form a joint US/Soviet Commission that would be charged with exploring the impact of strategic defense systems at all possible levels of capability, and in terms of unilateral, parallel, and/or joint research, development, testing and deployment. We have to know where all of this could lead us. We think we’ve got a good set of ideas for combining arms reduction, strategic stability, and strategic defense. It would cost the Soviet Union absolutely nothing to engage us in a serious conversation, a seminar if you will, about these ideas. The Commission wouldn’t get into either side’s technical research; it would conduct an abstract, but very important, exercise. Assume this or that level of capability, and this or that mode of development and deployment (unilateral, parallel, or whatever); then what happens? We’ve been trying to get the Soviets to agree to such a conversation in the space weapons part of the Geneva negotiations; so far, they’ve been intransigent. But we’re not going to quit, and I think they’ll come around, sooner or later, if only because of what seems to be their extraordinary concern about SDI. They wouldn’t have to worry about saving face, you know; Gromyko proposed something exactly like this in the early 1960s.

Donaldson: And suppose they don’t?

Reagan: Well, then we’re in for a hard time of it. But that’s pretty much where we are today, isn’t it? And even if the Soviets don’t come aboard in the short haul, SDI cast in this mutual security mode would do something else important: it could change the highly-patterned and predictable debate on strategic issues in our own country. You know, there are really unbelievable paradoxes here. The people most committed to the “arms control process” are, in most cases, the people who have given up on arms reductions and disarmament. I don’t demean their commitment or their work; but the fact is that arms control theory developed, not as a means to get out of the bind we’re in, but as a mechanism for managing weapons competition. And, despite immense efforts by good men, it hasn’t even accomplished much of that. I think it’s time for a new debate: one that takes arms reduction seriously again, and explores a host of avenues for getting reductions that lead to stability. The evolution of defensive systems could help do that.

Strategic defense isn’t the “Holy Grail,” as you put it in your inimitable way. But even the theoretical possibility of effective defensive systems radically changes the reference points for the strategic debate in our country. And I think that’s all to the good. We’re about to find out whether our political culture can sustain an intensive examination of some very dangerous, and yet very suggestive, questions of first principles. Is arms “control” all that we can hope for, or does that very delimitation of our goal conspire to make “control” less likely? Can we realistically pursue genuine arms reductions, and how might some parts of classic arms control practice lend themselves to that? What would be the impact of effective defensive systems on strategic stability and the prospects for arms reductions? How can you pursue any of this without making detente a prerequisite? These are the questions we should be focusing on. They can be examined thoughtfully without developing into classified, or highly arcane, technical issues: In fact, what’s happened is that the technical arguments against strategic defense (many of which has been rebutted, as you know) have tended to become blinds behind which people advance their strategic theories. It’s time to take that blind away and get the discussion back on the appropriate track, which has to do with strategy, politics, and ethics.

Donaldson: Speaking of moral arguments, you haven’t been getting much support for SDI from religious leaders, have you?

Reagan: No, we haven’t. The reasons, I think, are fairly clear. On the mainline Protestant side of the aisle, you’ve got a leadership that insists that detente is the only possible path to survival. The Soviets are upset by SDI, so we should abandon it. That’s an oversimplification of the position, I admit, but not by all that much. On the other hand, it’s getting hard to expect much from churches whose leaders hire consultants who tell them that the United States is the “No. 1 enemy of peace and justice in the world.” I didn’t get that out of Human Events, Sam; I got it out of the May 10, 1985 issue of the United Methodist Reporter, in a story on the Methodist bishops’ Nuclear Crisis Project.

I would hope that the Catholic leadership of America, clergy and laity, would help launch the kind of new public debate I think we need so badly. The 1983 bishops’ pastoral letter was right in its affirmation of deterrence as an interim mechanism, and right in its call for progress toward a better future. If the bishops don’t get trapped in those classic categories of arms control theory that derive from an abandonment of the goal of real arms reduction; and if they’re willing to explore the idea of strategic defense in a mutual security framework; then I think they could play an enormously useful role. I know the bishops’ concern about unilateral deployment of strategic defense and what that could do to strategic stability. I share them. What I don’t share is the view that all we’re left with is the kind of arms control efforts that have done so poorly in the past.

Donaldson: One last question, Mr. President. What are you going to tell Mr. Gorbachev about all this in November?

Reagan: I’m going to tell him quite simply, Sam, that he has a choice. I’m going to tell him what Michael Howard, a distinguished military historian, told a bipartisan group of Congressmen last year: that strategic defense systems are going to be developed, in ten years, twenty years, or a hundred years, and that the crucial thing is to get politics out in front of technology for the first time since the invention of the machine gun. That’s the choice Mr. Gorbachev has: does he join with us in a common exploration of how we get politics in charge of technology again, or doesn’t he? We’re not going to abandon research; you can’t stop the human mind with a piece of paper, even as important a piece of paper as a treaty. The real argument has to do with how strategic defense evolves, not whether it evolves. We’re eager to make that a common argument. The ball is in his court.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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