Sunday, February 06, 2011

Reagan and nuclear weapons

The best achievement of Ronald Reagan's Presidency was the new beginning he made with the Soviet Union on nuclear arms control during the latter part of his second term in office.

But a large part of the reason it was such a significant achievement is that it (partially) reversed the course on which he had put the country and the world during his first Administration. The Carter Administration had negotiated the SALT II Treaty, which Reagan opposed during the 1980 campaign. Although Reagan never pushed Congress to ratify it during his Presidency, he did agree to abide by the terms of the treaty.

On the other hand, he started a huge military buildup, including nuclear arms - large at least by the standards of that time. As Andrew Bacevich recently reminded us, "The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did at any time during the Cold War -- this despite the absence of anything remotely approximating what national security experts like to call a 'peer competitor'"! (Cow Most Sacred: Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable Tom Dispatch 01/27/2011)

Reagan also kicked off a major push for what may literally be the single largest boondoggle project in the history of humanity: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI),or Star Wars as it came to be known, "missile defense" in current jargon. In Reagan's original conception, the US would create a missile defense shield based on a combination of rockets and laser beams based on satellites and the ground that could reliably block all incoming Soviet rockets if a nuclear war broke out. For a brief description and timeline of the project up to 1998, see Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), The Fifteenth Anniversary of "Star Wars" Global Security 03/17/1998; also from UCS US Ballistic Missile Defense Timeline: 1945-2008 11/24/09.

There were two basic problems with the program which were widely recognized by experts in the field from the very beginning. One was that it wouldn't work, at least not at any cost the United States could manage, even assuming (as Reagan's Administration did in practice) that deficits were no obstacle; the missile shield was expensive, but countermeasures for the other side were relatively cheap. The other was that it would destabilize the nuclear stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union; the nuclear balance of terror was based on the appropriately named doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction), and anti-missile defenses were incompatible with it. Gary Guethner's article from that time, Strategic Defense: New Technologies, Old Tactics Parameters Autumn 1985, discusses the issues involved.

But the project proceeded, to the great profit of the military-industrial complex.

Star Wars remains a boondoggle to this day, as Pavel Podwig explains in The false promise of missile defense Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 09/14/2011.

Reagan's turnaround on nuclear arms control, interestingly enough, may have been influenced by the left-leaning peace groups of which he was part in the years just after the Second World War. Nancy Reagan also pushed him to get something down on arms control during his second term so that he could leave some clear peace legacy. Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione summarizes his arms-control legacy in Reagan the Abolitionist Huffington Post 03/03/2011:

He and Mikhail Gorbachev famously discussed abolishing all nuclear weapons at their 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. The two leaders came very close but failed to reach agreement on a treaty to eliminate all nuclear weapons within ten years. Their talks, however, paved the way for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 that eliminated all of the thousands of medium- and intermediate-range US and Russian nuclear missiles that threatened Europe. To this day, neither nation has nuclear weapons of these ranges, and several experts would like to take this treaty global, eliminating these missiles from the few other nations that have them.

Reagan outlined his views on an INF treaty in a speech three years before Reykjavik, concluding: "I support a zero option for all nuclear arms. As I've said before, my dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth."

Sadly, he was never able to sign a comprehensive ban of nuclear weapons, but Reagan did establish a framework for mutual and verifiable reductions -- through the INF treaty and original START treaty -- that the United States and Russia continue to this day.
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