McFARLANE: Reagan’s political courage on nuclear arms

Abandoned now, peace through strength made the world a safer place

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I’m often asked what quality distinguished President Reagan from other politicians. The answer comes easily. It was political courage — the will to do what would best serve the interests of the American people (and humankind), without regard for the possible impact on his own political fortunes.

Two examples come to mind: his firing of the striking air-traffic controllers in 1981 and his driven sense of mission to rid the world of nuclear weapons — against the advice of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, other European allies, virtually every Democratic member of the House and Senate, even members of his own Cabinet, and of course, Kremlin leaders (who were bent on building ever-larger stockpiles).

Most Americans have forgotten that throughout the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the world lived in constant fear that — whether by accident or design — a nuclear attack could occur, and the results would have been catastrophic for all of humankind.

Nuclear-alert drills required schoolchildren to crouch under their desks periodically, households built bomb shelters, hundreds of nuclear weapons were tested underground and in the air. Such was the palpable climate of alarm in which all Americans lived for almost 40 years.

Our hopes for avoiding such a holocaust rested uneasily on the premise that if we maintained a staggering number of nuclear weapons on alert, able even to ride out an attack and then to respond with devastating power, that this capability — this “balance of terror” — would deter the Soviet Union from attacking in the first place.

Any rational concept of “victory” under this doctrine had lost all meaning. Yet, the advocates of this strategy of “mutual assured destruction” — the so-called MAD doctrine — touted that it was working. Nuclear war had not occurred and, therefore, it ought to remain our strategy.

President Reagan disagreed. He thought it outrageous to base the very survival of humankind on the fraught premise that accidents or misguided aggression wouldn’t happen.

He also thought it was immoral. Reagan was a very spiritual, God-fearing man who had been attentive to the scriptures with a deep sense of personal accountability throughout his life. He had focused in particular on the passages in Revelation that portend mankind’s violent extinction as a consequence of man’s competitive and aggressive instincts.

He thought that this possibility was at hand as a consequence of the massive arsenals of nuclear weapons held — and growing — in the United States and the Soviet Union. He believed with all his heart that it was his responsibility to prevent the cataclysm from occurring, and ultimately to begin the process of getting rid of all nuclear weapons.

To do so, he planned to reverse the course of U.S. nuclear strategy 180 degrees, and instead of relying on offense (and the power to annihilate humankind), to rely on defense to defend us. Or as then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. James D. Watkins said, “Wouldn’t it be better to protect Americans than to avenge them?”

Who could disagree with so noble an undertaking? What politician would have the nerve to challenge so sensible a course? The answer was — plenty. Indeed, virtually every respected “strategic thinker” in our country was against it — Sen. Sam Nunn, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rep. Les Aspin (later a secretary of defense), Rep. (later Vice President) Al Gore, several former secretaries of defense, the Union of Concerned Scientists — all of them claiming that at least the bloodthirsty MAD doctrine had worked (even while acknowledging that it could easily fail). So the president had a major challenge ahead: to convince the American people, Congress and our allies of the military soundness and moral virtue of his strategy.

Reagan tackled that challenge with a passion. Over the next two years, through countless speeches, frequent meetings with the bipartisan leadership of the Congress, and further meetings and travel throughout the world to engage with foreign leaders, he made his case.

The results were phenomenal. The American people got it. After all, what’s not to like about a plan that will “put a shield over my head and avoid having to go through a nuclear attack?” So did Congress, albeit somewhat more slowly. Again, they were hearing from their constituents that “our president wants to protect us, so give him the money to do it.”

The allies were a little harder to convince. From their perspective, their safety in Europe — where Russian forces had always outnumbered theirs — had always rested on the commitment from the U.S. to use its nuclear weapons to compensate for the imbalance in conventional forces.

Further, they saw Reagan’s investment in his so-called “Star Wars” shield, as technologically risky, expensive and even as appearing to signal that the United States was preparing its own “first-strike” capability. Through patient listening and careful reasoning, the president was able to overcome their concerns.

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