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Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War

Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War

By Frances FitzGerald

Simon & Schuster, 2000, 575 pp.

When it comes to Cold War politics, the early 1980s appear, in retrospect, an embarrassment all around. The American left earnestly warned that with Ronald Reagan in the White House, nuclear annihilation was plausible or even likely. Self-styled Cassandras tried to roust a complacent public with overwrought doomsday polemics such as Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth (recently described by Michael Kinsley as "the silliest book ever taken seriously by serious people") and the TV movie The Day After.

The right acquitted itself no better. Pointing to an alleged U.S. "window of vulnerability," Reaganites ranted as if Soviet world domination were imminent, matching the left's hysteria with their own bombastic rhetoric and films such as Red Dawn in, of all years, 1984. "I believe we are seeing the same situation as when Mr. Chamberlain was tapping the cobblestones of Munich," Reagan said, implausibly, during the 1980 presidential campaign. In dealing with the Soviet Union, both sides ignored John F. Kennedy's advice: the left wanted to negotiate out of fear, while the right feared to negotiate.

Today, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet empire, we know better. The Soviet Union, we have learned, was already in hopeless shape by the 1980s. As Americans aimed to counter what they perceived as expanding Soviet power, the Soviets, although waging war in Afghanistan, were beginning to retrench. In other words, the United States probably need not have let the early 1980s become, as Frances FitzGerald puts it in her new book, Way Out There in the Blue, "the worst period of friction in U.S.-Soviet relations since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962."

Way Out There in the Blue seeks to explain a troubled chapter in American history that now seems surprisingly distant -- tumbling backward as if it had fallen from a speeding truck. FitzGerald, the author of a prizewinning 1973 book about Vietnam, Fire in the Lake, focuses on three touchstones of the era: the role of Ronald Reagan; the debate over his proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or "Star Wars," the plan to develop a laser-based system to protect the United States from nuclear missiles); and finally, the events that led Reagan, on leaving office in January 1989, to declare, "The Cold War is over." FitzGerald's overall view is disdainful. She portrays Reagan as an inept simpleton unqualified for the presidency. She considers Star Wars a silly pipe dream that caught on only because of the arrant cynicism of Reagan's coterie. And, most important, she rejects the now-widespread claim that Reagan's military buildup in general -- and Star Wars in particular -- forced the Soviet Union to bankrupt itself into extinction.

On this last count in particular, FitzGerald is quite right, but only toward the end of this ponderous and muddled tome does she get around to making her case. A historian's duty is to use her perspective on a bygone era to decide which events turned out to be significant and which insignificant, and to include the former and omit the latter. Instead, FitzGerald opts to be encyclopedic. She rehashes, in detail, every argument or story that bears remotely on her topic, from well-known news events such as the Iran-contra affair or David Stockman's travails as Reagan's budget director to sideshows such as the internecine squabbles among second-tier Reagan administration officials. Her approach does have at least one virtue: like a diligent research assistant, FitzGerald has gathered a lode of material (mostly from previously published books and articles) to use in making sense of Reagan, sdi, and the Cold War's passing -- and the modest impact of the first two on the third. The reader leaves Way Out There in the Blue feeling that the vaunted threat that Star Wars posed to Moscow was little more than a phantom menace.


At the center of it all stands Reagan, the gee-whiz Midwestern boy and Hollywood leading man who became a tribune of the new right. For a central character, however, Reagan is a curiously ghostly presence. Like many observers before her, FitzGerald sees Reagan as an insubstantial man, a uniquely passive and disengaged chief executive, an innocent who coasted through life detached not just from policy debates but from reality itself. To support this view, she deftly enlists damning quotations from those who worked with him most closely, including John Sears, David Stockman, Alexander Haig, Michael Deaver, and many others. She quotes Martin Anderson, an economic adviser to the president, comparing Reagan to "an ancient king or Turkish pasha" who "just responded to whatever was brought to his attention and said yes or no, or I'll think about it."

Like previous Reagan-watchers, FitzGerald chalks up the president's detachment from reality to his Hollywood past. As a celebrity, she writes, he lived in "a magical realm somewhere between the real world and fiction." Reagan saw the presidency as one big movie. Again FitzGerald marshals incriminating corroboration from Reagan's associates, such as Chief of Staff Donald Regan, who says that Reagan viewed his daily schedule like a "shooting script" and rarely fretted about his presidential burdens because he had been "learning his lines, composing his facial expression, hitting his toe marks for half a century."

All this adds up to an unflattering portrait. Schizoid behavior ranks as a fairly serious defect in a man who purports to lead the free world. FitzGerald shows how Reagan's feeble grasp of policy could jeopardize efforts to achieve important goals and how his childlike penchant for telling frivolous anecdotes in momentous situations could dash his credibility with foreign leaders. During his December 1987 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, Reagan regaled the Soviet leader with a story, which he had read in People, of a 1,200-pound man who got stuck in a doorway. At another point in the "negotiations," Reagan recited threadbare anti-Soviet wisecracks, prompting Secretary of State George Shultz to chastise him afterward: "Mr. President, that was a disaster. That man is tough. He's prepared. And you can't just sit there telling jokes."

FitzGerald does not consider Reagan capable of generating practical ideas, so his successes, in her telling, occur only by accident. She mocks him for his belief that a summit consists of the two superpowers' leaders sitting down face to face, dispensing with niggling technical minutiae and fashioning common goals. As it happened, though, something like this actually occurred during Reagan's 1985 encounter with Gorbachev in Geneva: the two men left the stalled talks for a walk to a nearby pool-house, forging a bond of trust in the process. The summit yielded little substantive progress, but the psychological breakthrough was dramatic. Presented with this interpretation, FitzGerald cries foul, objecting that the leaders' sashay had been scripted. But so what? Sensing a thaw in the Cold War, the American public indulged in a little optimism and applauded Reagan's new flexibility, thereby generating more of it.

To explain Reagan's successful summitry, FitzGerald trots out a claim often made by his detractors: that the Great Communicator turned failure into triumph by dint of his magisterial public-relations operation. But she ignores the possibility that Reagan's personal approach to summitry turned out to be (at least in this instance) wise. By suggesting that Reagan's achievements were "only" the product of image-making, FitzGerald shortchanges them. Image is often a component of substance. For example, even if the Geneva summit produced no quantifiable gains, the perception of progress warmed the atmosphere between the superpowers, allowing trust to take hold and relations to improve. Such gains were real, not illusory. But those who scorn the role of perceptions in politics -- who think it is less important or legitimate or "real" than the role of, say, policy analysis -- will remain resentful of Reagan's achievements.


FitzGerald considers Star Wars the perfect issue to understand Reagan's presidency -- not because the program was of great policy consequence but because it makes a rich metaphor. FitzGerald views the notion that a laser-rigged space umbrella might someday protect the United States from nuclear missiles as pure fantasy. Her reasons will be well known to anyone who followed the Star Wars debate in the 1980s. For one thing, she asserts, most scientists believed that no such anti-ballistic missile system could ever be deployed. Further, even a working antimissile system would not render nuclear weapons "obsolete," as Reagan dreamed, since submarines and airplanes could still deliver apocalyptic payloads. Finally, merely considering deploying such weaponry was foolish, since it would upset the delicate balance of mutual assured destruction that had deterred nuclear strikes for 40 years.

These facts did nothing to impede Reagan's quest for such a system because, FitzGerald argues, the president lived in a celluloid dream-world. He had long been enchanted with the notion of a protective shield, despite the devastating scientific and strategic arguments against it, because he had seen it work in the movies -- specifically, in Alfred Hitchcock's 1966 Torn Curtain, in which Paul Newman's character speaks of an antimissile device that "will make all nuclear weapons obsolete and thereby abolish the terror of nuclear warfare." A variation of that very sentence, FitzGerald notes, appeared in the 1983 speech in which Reagan first floated the idea of Star Wars -- another instance of a president hopelessly in thrall to his fantasies.

According to FitzGerald, the 1983 speech "appalled defense experts in and out of the administration." So why did Star Wars go forward? FitzGerald suggests that different administration officials exploited Reagan's enthusiasm for their own purposes. Some, such as Shultz, saw it as a bargaining chip for arms-control talks with the Soviet Union; by abandoning a nascent SDI, the United States could secure more important Soviet concessions. Other officials, mainly at the Pentagon, envisioned not the shelter for the American populace that Reagan imagined but a limited system designed to defend just U.S. missiles (thus preserving the option of a wartime counterattack). Still others, including neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, hoped that SDI would undermine the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which they had always believed foolishly hamstrung the United States. All three groups, FitzGerald suggests, knew Star Wars was a chimera. But like the emperor's subjects afraid to say he had no clothes, each faction proceeded as if a viable system lay within reach because no one wanted to confront the president with the truth.

FitzGerald's explanation is clever, but it overlooks a more plausible reason for the momentum that Star Wars gathered: some people thought Reagan had actually come up with a good idea. In his memoir, An American Life, Reagan articulated his position succinctly:

I never viewed SDI as an impenetrable shield -- no defense could ever be expected to be one hundred percent effective. ...[But] if it worked and we then entered into an era when the nations of the world agreed to eliminate nuclear weapons, it could serve as a safety valve against cheating -- or attacks by lunatics who managed to get their hands on a nuclear missile. And, if we couldn't reach an agreement eliminating nuclear weapons, the system would be able to knock down enough of an enemy's missiles so that if he ever pushed a button to attack, he would be doing so in the knowledge that his attack was unable to prevent a devastating retaliatory strike.

FitzGerald quotes this passage to scoff at what she considers the incoherence of Reagan's position. But the above statement does represent a coherent position -- one that neither I nor, more important, many scientists endorse, but one that nevertheless must be taken seriously.

Perhaps the strongest proof of the viability of Reagan's position is that, after going underground for a decade, SDI is now making a comeback -- and the ailing Reagan has nothing to do with it. This spring the Clinton administration will decide whether to try to deploy a national missile defense system by 2005. No Hollywood dreamers are leading the charge. Rather, the strides that North Korea and Iran have made in developing long-range missiles remind us that rethinking nuclear strategy remains vital. Nor is the Cold War as over as we like to assume. Russia's future remains perilously uncertain, and it still harbors, lest we forget, a vast nuclear arsenal. There remain persuasive arguments for opposing SDI -- most important, the improbability that such a system can ever be realized, as underscored by January's unsuccessful test of antimissile technology -- but the arguments on its behalf should be rebutted, not ridiculed.


Apart from its renewed policy relevance, the debate over sdi matters because of the historical question of what role (if any) it played in ending the Cold War. According to the conservative view, which seems to have acceded to the status of conventional wisdom, Reagan's refusal to barter away his cherished program at the 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, was the straw that broke the Soviet camel's back. Facing a cripplingly expensive arms race not only in offensive armaments but also in space-based defensive weapons, Gorbachev realized his country could not compete and folded.

There are several problems with this "vague and unexamined" thesis, as FitzGerald calls it, and the best part of her book is her thorough debunking of it. Most important, it attributes Gorbachev's revolutionary changes to American behavior. In fact, well before Reykjavik, many in the Soviet Union knew that their system needed a radical overhaul. Even Reagan, for all his early bellicosity, said in June 1982 that Soviet economic growth had been declining since the 1950s and might soon spell crisis. With the death of the hawkish Leonid Brezhnev in November 1982 came an opportunity for reform -- one seized upon only after two more senescent Soviet leaders came and went.

Gorbachev -- "a man in a hurry," as FitzGerald calls him -- took power in March 1985 and got right to work. A month later, he unilaterally suspended the deployment of Soviet intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe, offering to make the cessation permanent if the United States did likewise. He began shifting government rubles away from the military, publicly assailed the failures of the socialist economy, and promised economic and political reform. The next year, at the Communist Party Congress, he renounced the doctrine of fundamental conflict between socialism and capitalism, calling for global cooperation to avoid nuclear and ecological disaster. For the rest of his tenure, he made news practically every few months with another bold reform in the areas of perestroika, glasnost, and arms control. He made it clear he wanted out of Afghanistan, his country's Vietnam-like quagmire. Based on even the incomplete knowledge we now possess about what was going on inside the Soviet Union, it is clear that in the history of the Cold War's end, the Soviet role was far more critical than the American.

Even on the American side, though, FitzGerald provides ample evidence to distrust the thesis that Star Wars and the early 1980s arms buildup (actually begun by President Carter in his post-Afghanistan anger) toppled the Soviet Union. Reagan campaigned in 1980 and began his presidency as the most hawkish of Cold Warriors, prompting the chilliest U.S.-Soviet relations in almost 20 years. Within the administration, hard-liners such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger held sway, passing mammoth defense budgets and spewing martial rhetoric. But as early as 1982, when Shultz replaced Haig as secretary of state, that began to change. At that point, Shultz wrote, "Relations between the two superpowers were not simply bad; they were virtually non-existent." Shultz immediately pressed to make arms control a priority. As Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign approached, Shultz's conciliatory agenda won support from the White House image custodians, who worried about Reagan's reputation as a warmonger. As recently as 1983, after all, he had called the Soviet Union "the evil empire." But the new "Morning in America" Reagan happily revamped his oratory: "1984 is the year of opportunities for peace," he now promised, calling for "constructive cooperation" between the superpowers and "credible deterrence and peaceful competition" instead of menacing bluster.

After Reagan's reelection, Shultz, supported by National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and the arms-control wise man Paul Nitze, revived the summitry that American and Soviet leaders had successfully practiced from the 1963 nuclear test-ban treaty through the 1970s strategic arms limitation talks. On the whole, the Americans found the new Kremlin surprisingly forthcoming. Geneva accelerated the progress. Then the 1986 Reykjavik summit produced an apparent setback. U.S. negotiator Max Kampelman fought back tears as a shaken Shultz revealed that a comprehensive agreement had foundered when Gorbachev insisted that Reagan abandon Star Wars and Reagan refused. But in retrospect, the talks were an important step -- not because Reagan drove a hard bargain on sdi but, to the contrary, because he proved willing to compromise on so much else. The real news of Reykjavik, buried under the headline of the last-minute collapse, was that the two nations were not so far apart.

The next key step came, FitzGerald recounts, when Gorbachev met in December 1986 with the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, whom he had recently released from exile. Sakharov told the Soviet leader not to worry about Star Wars, predicting that the impracticable technology would eventually "die on its own." Persuaded, Gorbachev offered in February 1987 to separate the Star Wars negotiations from arms-control talks. The 1987 INF treaty and continued improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations followed apace. Thus, it is fair to note that the United States made a contribution to the Cold War's end -- but in the area of arms control, that contribution was the revival of summitry, not the threat of Star Wars.

If Star Wars deserves scant credit for ending the Cold War, how about Reagan? FitzGerald, for whom Reagan's successes are always accidental and illegitimate, is stingy with her praise. Inveterate Reagan foes who dismiss him as a lightweight or a fantasist will remain baffled by his accomplishments. But for all his militancy, Reagan did come to recognize -- belatedly, yet sooner than most members of his administration -- that Gorbachev was for real, that negotiations could ease tensions, and that by the 1980s the United States had little reason to fear Soviet expansion. Whether it was perspicacity or dumb luck, Reagan appreciated that there was a new world dynamic and managed to break from the dogmas he had long propagated. On that score, he was acting not fancifully but with the utmost realism.

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  • David Greenberg is Richard Hofstadter Fellow in American History at Columbia University and a columnist for Slate. He is working on a book about Richard Nixon's place in American culture.
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