When Ronald Reagan failed Nuclear Strategy 101

deproliferatorTHE DEPROLIFERATOR — In a previous post, I wrote about how the Obama administration should borrow a page from master framers like George Lakoff and Drew Westen. It should present its disarmament initiatives as honoring the man who’s a latter-day saint to many — Ronald Reagan — by realizing his dream of a world free of nuclear weapons.

And make no mistake, as Paul Boyer writes in an Arms Control Today review of a new book, Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World From Nuclear Disaster, according to authors Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson. . .

Above all else, Reagan was a man of peace whose unwavering objective, rooted in his personal history and reinforced by his brush with death in 1981, was a world free of nuclear weapons.

William F. Buckley agreed, as Daniel McCarthy writes in a review for the January American Conservative of his posthumous book, The Reagan I Knew:

“What I [once] said. . . was that Reagan would, if he had to, pull the nuclear trigger,” writes Buckley. “Twenty years after saying that. . . in the presence of the man I was talking about, I changed my mind.” Reagan would not have unleashed a nuclear holocaust, even in retaliation.

But there’s disarmament and there’s disarmament: One is the result of diplomacy; the other comes from the end of a gun. To the Andersons, the latter inevitably precedes the former:

[They] quote Reagan’s repeated assertions of his peaceful intentions and wholly endorse his insistence that the massive military buildup and intensified nuclear weapons competition of his first term were only a means to his utopian goal: to force the Soviets to recognize the futility of competition and the inevitability of total nuclear disarmament as their best option.

With equal conviction, they embrace Reagan’s view that the missile defense system envisioned in his SDI proposal would advance the cause of peace. … a global defensive shield would protect all the world’s peoples against any cheaters or rogue states tempted to nuclear adventurism.

As you can see, to the Andersons, Reagan set the table for disarmament with his militarism, not via whatever rapport grew between him and Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit. Nor, at the time, were conservatives too sanguine about a product of the summit — the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). National Review, McCarthy wrote, ran a cover story on the INF titled “Reagan’s Suicide Pact.”

In reality, of course, Reagan clinging to missile defense as if it were the country’s blankee was the stumbling block to going All. The. Way at Reykjavik. For a brief point in time, the sky had been the limit. In fact, when the idea of eliminating all nuclear weapons was brought up, even George Schultz, Reagan’s circumspect advisor, was caught up in the moment. “Let’s do it!” he said.

Boyer explains what went wrong:

[By the 80s, not only] the Russians, but most U.S. strategists, including some of the most hawkish, understood that, in the world of nuclear strategy, even “defensive” moves such as SDI. … radically altered the strategic balance. [In other words, the] United States would have been able to launch a nuclear first strike with no fear of a devastating counterblow.

But it’s not only Reagan who fails to understand that missile defense is more of a threat to world peace than it is protection (which has yet to be proved in any way, shape, or form) for the United States. Boyer again:

The Andersons share Reagan’s puzzlement that Gorbachev and his team proved unwilling to accept the president’s peace-loving protestations at face value and instead treated SDI as a grave escalation of the nuclear arms race. [To the Russians, it was] a potentially fatal blow to the concept and reality of deterrence, and an insuperable barrier to the dramatic strategic arms cuts the two leaders were considering. …

Within Reagan, though, existed “a radical disconnect between [his] visionary scenario and the. . . principles of deterrence theory.” One can’t help wondering why the means by which missile defense undermines deterrence wasn’t explained to him by his nuclear advisors, such as Richard Perle. Oh, because he’s Richard Perle. Alarmed by Reagan’s response to Gorbachev’s overtures, he would have been all too willing to leave the president in the dark if it kept him from realizing his dreams.

In the end, though, Reagan’s mentality may have been too wedded to the silver screen and the illusory hopes it holds out for wish fulfillment.

First posted at the Faster Times.

1 reply »

  1. I’ve always been sympathetic to the idea of bargaining from a position of strength. With Reagan, though, I’ve never quite been able to get past the REAL endgame. To wit, precisely what does your vision of “peace” look like, Mr President? I don’t think that draw-down would have resulted in a world of rainbows and bunnies and unicorns flying out of our asses. Instead, it would have happened in a way that empowered the Pax Americana dreams of the neocons.

    Or am I ignoring the question just so I can be difficult?

    Nice analysis, Russ….