Earlier this month Paul Kengor and others brought to our attention the 30th anniversary of Reagan’s famous “evil empire” speech, which was, keep in mind, chiefly a domestic policy speech where Reagan slipped in the evil empire reference that his foreign policy apparatus had managed to strip out of previous foreign policy speech drafts. But there was no getting around the objections of both the State and Defense Departments to his call for revived missile defense barely two weeks later, before the dust had fully settled from the evil empire speech. Today is the 30th anniversary of that pivotal speech, which was just as big an outrage for establishment opinion.
Just about every senior figure in the Reagan Administration was against the idea; even Cap Weinberger was lukewarm. George Shultz was adamantly opposed, bluntly warning Reagan up to an hour before the speech that he should not go with SDI. His only supporters were science adviser George Keyworth and national security adviser William Clark. Shultz called Keyworth a “lunatic” in an Oval Office meeting in front of Reagan. He warned Reagan that the Soviets would react badly, that the idea as presented would be “destabilizing.” Shultz complained strongly to Clark: “I feel you guys are leading the president out on a limb, and people will saw it off. The [Joint] Chiefs should have their neck wrung.”
The Left naturally went into overdrive to kill the idea. Sen. Ted Kennedy and other Democrats thought they had hit on an effective ridicule for the idea by dubbing it “Star Wars.” It is questionable whether attempting to denigrate Reagan’s idea by associating it with the most popular movie franchise in history was an effective tactic. Even as common sense Americans understood Luke Skywalker and “The Force” to be fantasy, at the same time Americans like audacious imagination. SDI, by whatever name, polled very strongly after Reagan elevated it to the front burner of American public discourse.
And today? Despite the best attempts of the bureaucracy and congressional liberals to hobble SDI research and development in its early years, followed by indifference from the Clinton Administration, today we have some missile defense systems available to deploy against the threat of North Korean and Iranian missiles. We ought to do more, of course, and Obama has once again been dragged by reality into deployment of defense systems he otherwise opposes. Our limited systems are probably not enough, but they are better than nothing, which is what we’d have if liberals had they way over the last generation.
Here again we see the prescience of Reagan. When Reagan rebuffed Gorbachev’s demand to give up SDI at the climactic summit in Reykjavik in 1986 (because who needs missile defense if we’re abolishing all our nukes?), one of Reagan’s reasons for refusing to do so was that, twenty years or more down the road, we might need missile defense against threats from a rogue nation such as Libya.
UPDATE: The incomparable Herbert Meyer recently gave a riveting one-hour talk about the legacy of CIA Director William Casey to the Young Americas Foundation, which includes this short bit (2:35 long) about the role of SDI:
I’ll have more excerpts from this extraordinary talk in due course.