On March 23, 1983, exactly 35 years ago, US president Ronald Reagan delivered a televised speech that made history. With the US-Soviet arms race in full swing, and in the face of widespread fears in the West of a nuclear war, the US president, generally dismissed as a “hardliner,” surprisingly questioned the entire logic of nuclear deterrence.

“Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” he asked his baffled audience, and then announced a program to explore new, predominantly space-based, nuclear missile defense technologies. With the “Strategic Defense Initiative” (SDI), as the program was christened shortly thereafter, the US appeared to announce its intention to exit the system of mutual nuclear deterrence.

Criticism was prompt and harsh. There was talk of “shooting from the hip,” of “strategic escapism” and “technological megalomania.” The European allies felt humiliated. After all, the American president’s revelation about the immorality of nuclear deterrence had come just as European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were struggling with the unpopular deployment of new US intermediate-range nuclear missiles on their continent.

Some observers smugly pointed out that Reagan’s television speech was, in fact, an act of despair: the president was trying to assuage the very fears among the US public that his own administration had evoked by its reckless and confrontational anti-Soviet rhetoric.

Experts from all over the world rushed to prove that the concept of a comprehensive missile defense shield was technically unworkable and strategically dangerous

Scientific criticism of the SDI, which the media soon nicknamed “Star Wars,” was equally harsh. Experts from all over the world rushed to prove that the concept of a comprehensive missile-defense shield was technically unworkable and strategically dangerous.

Virtually all the technologies discussed – from space-based lasers to electromagnetic rail guns – were decades away from realization. Above all, however, they argued that missile defense was destabilizing because it would neutralize the Soviet second-strike capability and thus enable the US to launch a first strike without having to fear retaliation.

The verdict on the SDI thus seemed clear: technically unworkable, financially prohibitive, and militarily dangerous. This debate dragged on for several years. The SDI became the most discussed armaments project of the second half of the 1980s – giving it political clout that far exceeded its short-term technological potential.

Soviet political leaders and scientists also insisted that they could overcome the American defense system at any time by means of far more cost-effective countermeasures. But their optimism sounded tortured. For the Strategic Defense Initiative heralded a change in the nuclear rules of the game that confronted the Soviet Union with a massive problem: In view of the general economic stagnation of the Soviet system it seemed impossible to enter an arms competition in the area of non-nuclear high technology.

No one understood this better than the new Soviet secretary general, Mikhail Gorbachev, who took office in March 1985. For him, the SDI was a challenge that had to be avoided at any cost. Consequently, at the US-Soviet Reykjavik Summit in October 1986, he promised the complete abolition of all nuclear weapons, if SDI remained confined to the research stage. But Reagan was not ready to abandon his missile-defense initiative.

What at the time seemed like the stubbornness of a naive president proved a stroke of luck in retrospect. The SDI maintained pressure on the Soviet Union. Moscow had meanwhile failed in its attempts to exploit the European peace movement to prevent NATO’s nuclear modernization. Soviet hopes that the SDI would drive a wedge between the trans-Atlantic allies equally had been dashed.

The SDI was here to stay, threatening an economically weak Soviet Union with relegation to second-class status. Gorbachev drew the right conclusions from this situation: For him, the SDI was one more reason for major political and economic reforms – reforms that soon got out of hand, however, and eventually led to the demise of the Soviet empire.

Of course, it would be an exaggeration to state that the SDI directly brought about the end of the East-West conflict, but there is no doubt that the US research program was instrumental in showing the Soviet leadership the ultimate futility of its costly armaments buildup. As Reagan observed many years later, the SDI did not end the Cold War, yet it was the most effective instrument of the United States to influence Soviet policy.

It would be an exaggeration to state that the SDI directly brought about the end of the East-West conflict, but there is no doubt that the American research program was instrumental in showing the Soviet leadership the ultimate futility of its costly armaments buildup

The end of the East-West conflict also meant the end of the SDI program. Nevertheless, missile defense is more relevant today than ever. The specter of a multi-nuclear world that some had already predicted in the 1980s is now about to become reality.

With North Korea boasting about its new intercontinental ballistic missiles being able to reach the US homeland, a security policy based on calculated vulnerability is no longer sufficient. One also needs a “Plan B.” It is one of Reagan’s historical achievements to have brought missile defense into play as a serious strategic option.

Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative has sometimes been ridiculed as the pipe dream of a former Hollywood actor who had trouble separating facts from fiction. But the issue was much more straightforward.

For Reagan, the SDI simply encapsulated everything that had made the United States great: the ambition for technical excellence; the desire to conquer space – the “final frontier”; and the conviction to stand up for what is morally right. If Reagan is today revered by Republicans and Democrats alike as one of the great US presidents of the 20th century, it is not least because he truly lived the American dream.

“I felt good,” Reagan wrote in his diary after his historic televised address. His instincts did not fail him. Even though the SDI never became a technical reality, it shaped the political reality more fundamentally than most people could imagine.

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Michael Rühle

Michael Ruhle is head of energy security, NATO Emerging Security Challenges Division. The author expresses solely his personal views.