23. Editorial Note

At 8 p.m. on March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan delivered a televised address to the nation on defense and national security. During the speech, Reagan called for research on a new initiative designed to protect the United States from incoming nuclear ballistic missiles. This program eventually became known as the Strategic Defense Initiative or, colloquially, by reporters and detractors of the program, as “Star Wars.” The origins and development of the Strategic Defense Initiative will be documented in Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, volume XLIII, National Security Policy, 1981–1984.

During a campaign trip to NORAD in 1979, Reagan learned that the United States had no defense against an incoming nuclear missile attack. Since that visit, the idea of developing some kind of defense against nuclear missiles resonated with Reagan. In his memoir, he wrote: “I came into office with a decided prejudice against our tacit agreement with the Soviet Union regarding nuclear missiles. I’m talking about the MAD policy—‘mutual assured destruction’—the idea of deterrence providing safety so long as each of us had the power to destroy the other with nuclear missiles if one of us launched a first strike. Somehow this didn’t seem to me to be something that would send you to bed feeling safe. It was like having two westerners standing in a saloon aiming their guns at each other’s head—permanently. There had to be a better way.

“Early in my first term, I called a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—our military leaders—and said to them: Every offensive weapon ever invented by man has resulted in the creation of a defense against it; isn’t it possible in this age of technology that we could invent a defensive weapon that could intercept nuclear weapons and destroy them as they emerged from their silos?

“They looked at each other, then asked if they could huddle for a few moments. Very shortly, they came out of their huddle and said, ‘Yes, it’s an idea worth exploring.’ My answer was, ‘Let’s do it.’” (Reagan, An American Life, page 547)

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In his February 11, 1983, diary entry, Reagan wrote: “An almost 2 hr. lunch with Joint Chiefs of staff. Most of time spent on MX & the commission etc. Out of it came a super idea. So far the only policy worldwide on nuclear weapons is to have a deterrent. What if we tell the world we want to protect our people not avenge them; that we [a]re going to embark on a program of research to come up with a defensive weapon that could make nuclear weapons obsolete? I would call upon the scientific community to volunteer in bringing such a thing about.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 196)

According to Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Robert McFarlane, Reagan asked him to begin working on a special insert for the upcoming defense and national security speech, which would propose research and development for SDI. Reagan told McFarlane: “‘I want you to keep this tightly under wraps.’ and ‘Do the work in your own staff and write the speech and let’s get ready to give it.’” (McFarlane, Special Trust, pages 229–231) McFarlane, with assistance from National Security Council Staff members Raymond Pollock, Richard Boverie, and John Poindexter began work on the insert, while the White House speechwriters worked on the main parts of the speech.

By March 21, word of the speech reached the Department of State. In his memoir, Shultz recalled: “On Monday morning, March 21, Larry Eagleburger reported to me on a conversation he had just had with Bud McFarlane. ‘The president will give a speech on Wednesday, March 23,’ he told me. The Joint Chiefs had convinced the president, he said, that the MX would remain vulnerable but that there was an alternative. ‘The alternative is a high-tech strategic defense system that can protect us against ballistic missiles and thereby protect our offensive capabilities. The president is intrigued and wants to make strategic defense the subject of his speech.’

“‘The chiefs,’ I countered, ‘are not equipped to make this kind of proposal. They are not scientists.’

Eagleburger went on to say that the president had nevertheless decided that ‘by the close of the century we should turn to a strategic defense and by then banish all nuclear weapons.’ Bud McFarlane wanted to get up a message to our allies, said Eagleburger.

“‘We don’t have the technology to say this,’ I interjected.

“‘The White House has a whole public campaign planned,’ Eagleburger responded. It sounded to me like Fortress America. ‘This changes the whole strategic view and doctrine of the United States,’ I said.

Rick Burt came into the meeting. When Eagleburger described to him the president’s idea, Burt was flabbergasted. ‘Not only is a nuclear-[Page 83]free world a pipe dream, but a speech like this by the president will unilaterally destroy the foundation of the Western alliance,’ he said.

“After this meeting, I confided to my executive assistant, Ray Seitz, that I had heard of the strategic defense idea before: first at my dinner with the president and subsequently when I had argued with Bill Clark about the strategic defense question the previous Friday. ‘There is an interplay between policy and technology,’ I said. ‘Technology can make policy obsolete. The president is saying that defensive measures have a lot of promise, and he’s right. But they should redraft the speech to recognize the evolving technology without changing our strategic doctrine.’

“About eleven o’clock that morning, Bill Clark called on the secure line about the new defensive concept that was to be part of the president’s speech on the defense budget.

“‘This is so sweeping,’ I told him, ‘that it must be carefully considered. It could hit the allies right between the eyes. This is the year when we especially need a cohesive alliance in our negotiations with the Soviets. Why place so much confidence in the Joint Chiefs of Staff? They are in no position to make what amounts to a scientific judgment.’

“Later in the afternoon I went to the White House for a meeting with the president. I found great resistance to any change in the words for the speech. ‘This paragraph is a revolution in our strategic doctrine,’ I told President Reagan. He had Keyworth [Science Adviser to President Reagan] called in. I asked him, ‘Can you be sure of an impenetrable shield? And what about cruise missiles? What about stealth bombers? Your language is sweeping. I’m not objecting to R and D, but this is a bombshell. What about the ABM Treaty? What about our allies and the strategic doctrine on which we and they depend? You don’t say anything about those questions.’ His answers were not at all satisfactory to me.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, pages 249–250)

Reagan wrote in his diary on March 21: “Geo. Shultz came by concerned about an insert intended for inclusion in Wed. nite T.V. speech on defense. He had a point but I think the writing of the insert is at fault. I find it hard to understand myself.—I think I’ll have to try rewriting it.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 208)

On March 22, Shultz expressed concerns in a meeting with Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs William Clark and McFarlane. Although no formal record of this meeting has been found, Shultz briefed Charles Hill, who prepared the following handwritten notes:

Speech on defensive weapons.S [Secretary] has pissed in the punch bowl. Not happy w him at WH.

“—Clark and McF have [committed?] P [President] to it w/o thinking it through & now embarrassed to go & back him off. McF to blame.

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“—Cap won’t accept it.

“—Will send our draft to P. They have not agreed that they must pull P back. But know that S opposed & won’t support it. Gaping holes in the concept (stop all of nucl-attack ag U.S.) [illegible] says that we can stop Sov stealth bomber while asking Cong to spend for our stealth. How do we know we cld stop it.

“—S has carried big load & been hurt by it. He has had to say WH wrong. But did right thing, has cost him with P

“—idea came fr PFIAB. And JCS strong supporters. (until later said they only meant ballistic missile)

This does not amt to full defense of nucl attack

“And wld have us violate the ABM treaty.

1. The JCS, PFIAB predicted what can’t be known

2. but was there a philosophical basis behind it—fortress America

“—philosophical [unilateralism?] The circle where left & rt meet in the circle. Isolationism meets America out & Yankee go home

“F’stein meets the Wolfman.” (Reagan Library, Charles Hill Papers, Charles Hill Notebooks, Entry for March 22, 1983)

Shultz raised his concerns with Reagan in a telephone call that evening, March 22. As he recounted in his memoir: “At 6:30 in the evening, the president called me. ‘I think the wording of the speech is better in this current draft, and some of the Qs and As are helpful,’ I told him, ‘but I still have great reservations, not about the R and D effort, but about advancing this as something of such tremendous importance and scope. It implies we are changing our strategic doctrine. There are a host of unanswered technical questions. There is tremendous strength in both offensive and defensive measures, but the former historically has the upper hand. I can’t see being certain of one system defending against cruise missiles on submarines and stealth bombers, let alone ballistic missiles. I can see the moral ground you want to stake out, but I don’t want to see you put something forward so powerfully, only to find technical flaws or major doctrinal weaknesses.’ I went on, ‘I have been sitting here trying to think it through. It raises questions about the B–1 bomber and stealth and INF deployments. I have to say honestly that I am deeply troubled. Of course, I will support you. I’m sure you know that.’

“President Reagan responded, stressing the overwhelming attractions to him of a defensive system.

“‘I agree that if we get there, we’ll be in the catbird seat,’ I said. ‘So we must push our R and D if for no other reason than because the Soviets are. But it can be destabilizing as to what the Soviets do and how they respond. They will assume that we have a major scientific breakthrough. I don’t know the implications of that.’

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“The president interrupted to say that this was the part that would make a news item and attract the networks.

“‘It’s more than a news item. It’s a sweeping proposal,’ I said.

“I looked over the draft text again and said, ‘A lot of weight is put on Keyworth. It suggests that we really have the technology. I don’t have the information. Is stealth irrelevant? Perhaps I could redraft a few alternative paragraphs that support R and D, state that the research is consistent with the ABM Treaty and that we continue to rely on our strategic doctrine of deterrence. We don’t want to make the prospect sound as if this is an overall and imminent solution to our problems. Should I give it a whirl?’

“The president told me to go ahead.

“Half apologetically I said, ‘I feel I would be derelict if I didn’t tell you what I think.’ That was the end of the conversation.

“I was impressed with the president’s call. Again, I could see the depth of his feelings about this issue, his abhorrence of reliance on the ability to ‘wipe each other out’ as the means of deterring war, and, of course, I could agree that if we could learn how to defend ourselves, that would be wonderful.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, page 253)

Reagan wrote in his diary that evening: “On my desk was a draft of the speech on defense to be delivered tomorrow night on T.V. This was one hassled over by N.S.C., State & Defense. Finally I have a crack at it. I did a lot of re-writing. Much of it was to change bureaucratic into people talk.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 208)

Throughout the day on March 23, the struggle over the contents of the speech continued between the NSC and State Department. As Charles Hill wrote in his notes for the day: “—More on P speech on defensive issues blood level high.

“—Clark distancing himself from it now he sees it as big mistake. S fears that McF will take the rap & not survive. (Clark will go to the press about it & blame someone so as to avoid trouble himself)

“—still unclear what is to be said, but we toning it down, less dramatic. Not as hair raising as headed for yesterday. S was the only one athwart it.

“—(a total collapse of the whole NSC decision making procedure)

“—NSC sold P a bill of goods. Preempt freeze mvt, etc.” (Reagan Library, Charles Hill Papers, Charles Hill Notebooks, Entry for March 23, 1983)

On March 23, Reagan wrote in his diary: “The big thing today was the 8 P.M. T.V. speech on all networks about the Nat. Security. We’ve been working on the speech for about 72 hrs. & right down to deadline.” [Page 86] (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 209)

In his televised address that evening, the President stated: “One of the most important contributions we can make is, of course, to lower the level of all arms, and particularly nuclear arms. We’re engaged right now in several negotiations with the Soviet Union to bring about a mutual reduction of weapons. I will report to you a week from tomorrow my thoughts on that score. But let me just say, I’m totally committed to this course.

“If the Soviet Union will join with us in our effort to achieve major arms reduction, we will have succeeded in stabilizing the nuclear balance. Nevertheless, it will still be necessary to rely on the specter of retaliation, on mutual threat. And that’s a sad commentary on the human condition. Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them? Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability? I think we are. Indeed, we must.

“After careful consultation with my advisers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I believe there is a way. Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today.

“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. 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?

“I know this is a formidable, technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of this century. Yet, current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it’s reasonable for us to begin this effort. It will take years, probably decades of effort on many fronts. There will be failures and setbacks, just as there will be successes and breakthroughs. And as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response. But isn’t it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.

“In the meantime, we will continue to pursue real reductions in nuclear arms, negotiating from a position of strength that can be ensured only by modernizing our strategic forces. At the same time, we must take steps to reduce the risk of a conventional military conflict escalating to nuclear war by improving our non-nuclear capabilities.

“America does possess—now—the technologies to attain very significant improvements in the effectiveness of our conventional, non-[Page 87]nuclear forces. Proceeding boldly with these new technologies, we can significantly reduce any incentive that the Soviet Union may have to threaten attack against the United States or its allies.

“As we pursue our goal of defensive technologies, we recognize that our allies rely upon our strategic offensive power to deter attacks against them. Their vital interests and ours are inextricably linked. Their safety and ours are one. And no change in technology can or will alter that reality. We must and shall continue to honor our commitments.

“I clearly recognize that defensive systems have limitations and raise certain problems and ambiguities. If paired with offensive systems, they can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy, and no one wants that. But with these considerations firmly in mind, I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

“Tonight, consistent with our obligations of the ABM treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies, I’m taking an important first step. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles. This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves. We seek neither military superiority nor political advantage. Our only purpose—one all people share—is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war.

“My fellow Americans, tonight we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history. There will be risks, and results take time. But I believe we can do it. As we cross this threshold, I ask for your prayers and your support.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1983, Book I, pages 442–443)

Reagan also wrote in his diary that a special group was invited to the White House for the speech, including “several former Secs. of State, Nat. Security Advisors, distinguished Nuclear scientists, the Chiefs of Staff, etc. I did the speech from the Oval office at 8 & then joined the party for coffee. I guess it was O.K. they all praised it to the sky & seemed to think it would be a source of debate for some time to come. I did the bulk of the speech on why our arms build up was necessary & then finished with a call to the Science community to join me in research starting now to develop a defensive weapon that would render nuclear missiles obsolete. I made no optimistic forecasts—said it might take 20 yrs. or more but we had to do it. I felt good.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 209)