Back to the Future

Stephen Bird

4/14/2008 2:15:49 PM - Stephen Bird

March marked the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s speech that launched the Strategic Defense Initiative program, one that hoped to create a defensive space shield from incoming nuclear missiles.

The anniversary took on even greater significance last weekend as President Bush visited Europe, stopping in Russia where he refused to give in to Vladimir Putin’s demands that the system not be deployed in central Europe.

To look at headlines, broadcasts, and stories from 1983, one would hardly imagine any two country’s leaders debating the option 25 years later.

From nearly the moment that President Reagan’s nationally televised speech ended that March 23rd night, he faced derision and ridicule from the left.

Ted Kennedy immediately dubbed SDI “Star Wars,” a moniker that has stuck though not carrying the same negative connotations as when Kennedy characterized President Reagan’s speech as “misleading Red-scare tactics” and “reckless.”

Some referred to SDI as “fantasy,” the stuff of Buck Rogers. Some even began calling the president “Ray guns.”

Still others took SDI seriously but critically referred to it as the beginning of another arms race, fearing a weapons race in space.

In the past month or so, two technologies President Reagan envisioned have come to the public’s attention. While it was hard to ignore the U.S. military’s decimation of a satellite with a missile, the Pentagon’s development of a ray gun did not receive as much attention.

Perhaps the most sublime weapon ever created by humankind, this ray gun featured on the March 2 episode of “60 Minutes” does not kill. Instead, the Active Denial System zaps humans with a 100,000-watt ray that, when used as intended, leaves its targets in retreat, unharmed, and in some instances laughing.

Reagan called these technologies defensive weaponry and said, once developed, they could be shared with the Soviet Union to prevent mutually assured destruction, often referred to as MAD.

Like many visionaries, President Reagan had his detractors, especially in the press.

Mark Shields criticized the president’s “Star Wars” speech in his March 25, 1983 Washington Post column, saying it did not appeal to the citizenry for what he called “patriotic sacrifice” and “unselfish national purpose” in comparison to the speeches of FDR and JFK.

Later that week in the Post, Juan Williams quoted Hendrick Hertzberg, Jimmy Carter’s chief speech writer, concerning the president’s “Evil Empire” speech delivered in Orlando days before the “Star Wars” speech: “Reagan’s speeches are much more ideological and attacking than any recent president’s speeches…Something like the speech to the evangelicals is not presidential, it’s not something a president should say.”

Hertzberg was editor of The New Republic when he made his comments.

The New York Times editorialized on March 27 that the president’s speech “expresses the deepest longing of the nuclear age—for a place to hide. But it remains a pipe dream, a projection of fantasy into policy.” A New York Times news article two days prior featured the remarks of liberal Daniel Inouye, who delivered a response to President Reagan’s speech. Inouye questioned the president’s honesty about the Soviet defense advantage saying it was but a diversion from “the economic disasters brought on by his policies.”

That same day in the Times, Anthony Lewis concluded his column with the following question: “What is one to think of the seriousness of an American President who offers his people fantasies as the pass to safety?”

According to his critics, President Reagan lived in a fantasy world and based his arms negotiations on fantasy accounts of Soviet nuclear missile superiority.

And they said his solution was even more so a fantasy.

History, however, has proven Ronald Reagan’s futuristic vision the stuff of reality.

Interns from The National Journalism Center contributed research to this column.