- - Monday, April 3, 2023

Forty years ago, in the early spring of 1983, President Reagan surprised every American who watched his televised address from the Oval Office. To escape the nuclear “balance of terror” – to move beyond the deterrence of “mutually assured destruction” – the president called on the scientific community to develop space-based lasers that could shoot down incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.

Derided by its critics as “Star Wars,” the Strategic Defense Initiative, however expensive and technologically unfeasible, reflected Reagan’s earnest conviction that no one could win a nuclear war.

“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” Reagan said on March 23, 1983.

In this episode of History As It Happens, nuclear arms expert Joe Cirincione, who began his career as an analyst inside the Reagan administration, discusses the legacy of SDI and the new nuclear arms race unfolding today.

“Reagan was sincere. He wanted to break the cycle of arms racing and to find a way to render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete… By his second term, he wanted to negotiate with [Mikhail] Gorbachev on a way to eliminate nuclear weapons, and he almost did it. As a result, we started on a path of tremendous reductions in nuclear weapons that continued up until about 10 years ago,” said Mr. Cirincione, the former director of nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

SDI was part of Reagan’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons, but the idea became an obstacle in negotiations with the Soviets, the signing of the historic INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) Treaty in 1987 notwithstanding. Moreover, the U.S. has spent $380 billion over the past four decades on missile defense systems with almost nothing to show for it; SDI is still a Star Wars-like fantasy after all.

But the program reflected an abiding hatred of nuclear weapons on the part of Reagan – one shared by Gorbachev as the U.S. and USSR embarked on the “golden age” of arms treaties. Today, however, only one major treaty is left. New START will expire in 2026, but Russian President Vladimir Putin already has announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in it.

Listen to Mr. Cirincione discuss the modern nuclear arms race as well as Reagan’s vision for a world without nukes in this episode of History As It Happens.

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