Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative: Worth the Money or Too Little Too Late?

President Ronald Reagan’s Address on Defense and National Security on March 23rd, 1983, proposes new ideas for the security and defense programs in the United States with regards to nuclear weapons. As Reagan argues, it is better to save lives than avenge them, and emphasizes the importance of continued defense spending. In many ways, the address is a quintessential Reagan speech, reiterating the importance of deterrence and trying to sway public opinion using powerful rhetoric, but he goes further to propose new ideas and challenge previous policies. Reagan’s proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative at the end of his speech, also known as “Star Wars” disrupts the previous strategy of mutually assured destruction. Ultimately, Reagan’s address reinforces his actor persona, seeing that the SDI technology appears unrealistic and creates a false sense of security for the American people.

Reagan attempts to justify government spending on the weapons program by giving statements like “cuts mean cutting our commitment to allies” and “the United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor.” He argues although he came to Washington “with the intention of lowering government spending,” this spending is absolutely necessary, and he even talked to specialists and other officials to justify the budget. It is clear Reagan is trying to convince the American people to support him, offering up arguments that he is bringing “a new hope for our children” and going to “make America strong again” (an interesting foreshadow of Trump’s popular slogan). Reagan was perhaps worried about public opinion and implemented the Strategic Defense Initiative following growing hysteria created by the filming and eventual release of the movie The Day After and growing concerns of a nuclear attack by the Soviets.

Reagan’s SDI proposal advocates for the development of technology that could, in theory, be directed from satellites, airplanes or land-based installations to shoot down missiles. He describes potentially using lasers, particle and projectile beams and other new forms of technology. While the idea was great in theory, and Reagan suggested it would take time to develop such technologies, the program appears unrealistic and beyond the capabilities of scientists at the time. Furthermore, the program would have been incredibly expensive, and may not have even been that efficient. This speech reinforces Reagan’s actor and storyteller role as a president, and seems to be a way to try to help Americans recover from their fears.

Some questions I had after watching this speech, and hopefully others can respond to are as follows:

While congress eventually decided to end the initiative and not pursue the program Reagan suggested, should they have continued to try to find a way to develop the technologies to actually be able to shoot down missiles, or was it not worth the money or time? And is Reagan’s devotion to military spending justified, or is the billions of dollars the government has subsequently poured into the defense program too much? — Adrienne