The Star Wars Debate: Nuclear Policy and the Defensive Transition

President Reagan Addresses the Nation from the Oval Office on National Security, March 23, 1983.

On March 23, 1983, President Reagan delivered a televised speech to the nation in which he initiated a potentially radical departure in U.S. strategic policy. The President suggested that the policy of nuclear deterrence through the threat of strategic nuclear retaliation is inadequate, and called upon the vast American technological community to examine the potential for effective defense against ballistic missiles:

Would it not 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. . . . 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. . . . I know this is a formidable technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of the century. Yet, current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it is reasonable for us to begin this effort.1

The central problem of nuclear deterrence is that no offensive deterrent, no matter how fearsome, is likely to work forever, and the consequences of its failure would be intolerable for civilization. The President's call was a direct challenge to the offensive concept of deterrence that has dominated U.S. strategic policy for decades. That concept is based upon the simple and still widely accepted argument that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union will launch a nuclear first strike or engage in other highly provocative actions if both sides are vulnerable to nuclear retaliation. The President's speech suggested that vulnerability to a Soviet nuclear attack is not an acceptable condition in the long term, and that the United States would examine avenues to counter the threat of nuclear missiles.

Following the President's speech, National Security Study Directive 6

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