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Context of '1981: Reagan Expands MX Nuclear Missile Program, Faces Stiff Opposition'

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A test firing of an MX missile.A test firing of an MX missile. [Source: University of Wyoming]President Carter reluctantly gives public support to the MX nuclear missile program. The MX, first proposed in 1971, is a mobile missile platform that can, in theory, escape detection by Soviet spy satellites simply because it is mobile; by the time static satellite photos are developed and analyzed, and targeting data fed into Soviet nuclear missiles, the MX could have long since been moved. The MX has ten nuclear warheads, each capable of striking separate targets. To keep it out of Soviet sights, it can be moved around on railway cars, in vans driven on superhighways, even submerged in lakes. The MX program quickly earned heated opposition from ranchers and landowners in Western states, where the missiles would be deployed. And the Soviets do not like the program because the MX, being mobile, could be used to “spoof” the counts each side make of the other’s weapons, as mandated by treaties. Carter struggles with the program throughout his term, and finally orders 200 of the missiles and 4,600 “soft shelters” constructed in Utah and Nevada. Carter’s Republican challenger in the 1980 presidential race, Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA), effectively lambasts Carter for his support of the program throughout the race, then after taking office in 1981, reverses course and enthusiastically supports and even expands the program (see 1981), in the process dubbing the MX the “Peacekeeper.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 50-51]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

A Peacekeeper test firing at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.A Peacekeeper test firing at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. [Source: US Army]President Ronald Reagan, reversing his campaign opposition to the MX mobile nuclear weapons platform (see June 1979), now enthusiastically supports the program, which he dubs, without apparent irony, the “Peacekeeper.” He first proposes housing them in superhardened Minuteman missile silos, which is roundly derided as ridiculous given that the entire raison d’etre of the MX is its mobile capacity. Reagan then appoints a commission, chaired by former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and having former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as one of its members, to study ways of making the program work. The commission finally recommends that 100 MX missiles be deployed in Minuteman silos in Wyoming, as well as smaller, single-warhead MX missiles, dubbed “Midgetmen,” to complement the main missile program. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA) opposes the program. Iconoclastic Republican John Perry Barlow, a Wyoming rancher and sometime-lyricist for the Grateful Dead, lobbies Washington lawmakers against the MX. He sees it as a huge step away from “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) and towards a first-strike policy, which would, in Barlow’s eyes, be potentially catastrophic. He finds Rep. Dick Cheney (R-WY), who strongly supports the program, a worthy adversary. “I must have lobbied more than one hundred members of Congress on this, and Dick was the only one who knew more about it than I did,” Barlow will later recall. Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory accompanies Barlow to one meeting with Cheney. After listening to the intense debate, McGrory tells Barlow, “I think your guy Cheney is the most dangerous person I’ve ever seen up here.” Barlow will recall: “I felt we were really arguing about the fate of the world.… Cheney believes the world is an inherently dangerous place, and he sees the rest of the world as… populated by four-year old kids with automatic weapons.” Congress will eventually give Reagan only fifty of the MXs, but in part to placate him, Cheney, and their allies, authorizes the start of what will become a multi-billion dollar weapons platform, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), later dubbed “Star Wars.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 51-53]

Entity Tags: Mary McGrory, Brent Scowcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, John Perry Barlow, Thomas Phillip ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Jr, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan, recuperating from surgery to remove an assassin’s bullet, tells bedside visitor Terence Cardinal Cooke that God spared his life so that he might “reduce the threat of nuclear war.”
Censored Letter to Brezhnev - The day after his conversation with Cooke, Reagan pens a letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev calling for “disarmament” and a “world without nuclear weapons.” Brezhnev does not read Reagan’s words; Reagan’s aides, horrified at the letter, rewrite it and strip out all the phrases calling for a reduction in nuclear weapons before sending it to Brezhnev.
Aides Refuse to Draw up Plans for Disarmament - In the following weeks, Reagan will call nuclear weapons “horrible” and “inherently evil,” and order his aides to draw up plans for their elimination. His aides will refuse to deliver those plans; one adviser, Richard Burt (see Early 1981 and After), will exclaim: “He can’t have a world without nuclear weapons! Doesn’t he understand the realities?”
Wants to Stop Nuclear Armageddon - Reagan believes in the literal Biblical story of Armageddon—the End Times—and believes that it will come about through the use of nuclear weapons. Unlike some conservative Christians (and some of his advisers), he does not relish the prospect, and in fact believes it is his task to prevent it from happening.
Plans to Reduce Nuclear Arms Based on Prescience, Ignorance - Author J. Peter Scoblic will note it is difficult to reconcile the view of Reagan as an advocate of nuclear disarmament with the confrontational, sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric and actions by him and his administration (see Early 1981 and After, Early 1981 and After, September 1981 through November 1983, March 1982, and Spring 1982), but Scoblic will write: “Each of these efforts, however, can also be interpreted as a sincere, if misguided, product of Reagan’s hatred of nuclear weapons. Reagan believed that the Soviets would reduce their atomic arsenal only if they were faced with the prospect of an arms race.” Reagan realizes—ahead of many of his advisers—that the USSR was moving towards a calamitous economic crisis, and believes that the Soviets will choose to step back from further rounds of escalation in order to save their economy from complete collapse. He also believes, with some apparent conflict in logic, that the only way to reduce US nuclear arms is to increase the nation’s military arsenal. “Reagan emphasized time and again, that the aim of his arms build-up was to attain deep cuts in nuclear weapons,” biographer Paul Lettow will write. “[M]ost people did not listen to what he was actually saying.” Scoblic cites what he calls Reagan’s profound ignorance of nuclear strategy and tactical capabilities as another driving force behind Reagan’s vision of nuclear disarmament. He is not aware that submarines and long-range bombers carry nuclear missiles; he believes that submarine-based nuclear missiles can be called back once in flight. Both ideas are wrong. He tells foreign policy adviser Brent Scowcroft that he did not realize the primary threat from the Soviet Union was that its gigantic arsenal of ICBMs might obliterate the US’s own ICBM stockpile. When journalists ask him how the MX missile program (see 1981) that he has asserted will rectify the threat to American ICBMs, as he has asserted, he confesses that he does not know. And he honestly does not seem to understand that his administration’s confrontational, sometimes overtly belligerent actions (see May 1982 and After, June 8, 1982, March 23, 1983, and November 2-11, 1983) cause apprehension and even panic among the Soviet military and political leadership. Scoblic will write that like other hardline conservatives, “Reagan could not believe that anyone could perceive the United States as anything but righteous.”
'Subject to Manipulation' - Reagan’s desire for a reduction in nuclear arms is not matched by any depth of understanding of the nuclear weapons issues. Therefore, Scoblic will observe, “[h]e was susceptible to manipulation by advisers who shared his militant anti-communism but not his distaste for nuclear deterrence and who wanted neither arms reduction nor arms control.” When he names George Shultz as his secretary of state in mid-1982, he gains a key ally in his plans for nuclear reduction and a counterweight to arms-race advocates such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and other hardliners who have worked (and continue to work) to sabotage the administration’s arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. He gains another ally when he replaces National Security Adviser William Clark with the more pragmatic Robert McFarlane. Both Shultz and McFarlane will support Reagan’s desire to begin sincere negotiations with the USSR on reducing nuclear arms, as does his wife, Nancy Reagan, who wants her husband to be remembered by history as reducing, not increasing, the risk of nuclear war. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 136-138]

Entity Tags: Robert C. McFarlane, Leonid Brezhnev, J. Peter Scoblic, George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, Brent Scowcroft, Nancy Reagan, Richard Burt, Terence Cardinal Cooke, Ronald Reagan, William Clark, Paul Lettow

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Disgusted with the Reagan administration’s failure to make even the most basic progress in the START arms negotiations with the Soviet Union (see May 1982 and After), and viewing the administration’s position as not only untenable but dangerous, Congress steps in and threatens to withhold funding for the MX missile (see 1981) if something is not done. In return, President Reagan appoints a blue-ribbon panel to study the negotiations and recommend alternatives (see January 1983-April 1983). [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 124]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

As part of the resurgence of the Cold War promulgated by the Reagan administration, Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY), an obstinate enemy of the Soviet union and a relentless advocate of an expanded US nuclear arsenal (see 1981), is part of a delegation sent by Reagan officials to Moscow as part of the reopened arms negotiations between the two countries (see May 1982 and After). It is not Cheney’s first “codel,” or Congressional delegation, but this particular trip is memorable, and not just because it is the first time a House delegation has visited the Soviet Union since 1979.
No Negotiations on Arms - Cheney, the ranking Republican on the trip, meets with Soviet marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the deputy chief of the Soviet general staff. The meeting is also attended by Cheney’s House colleague, Thomas Downey (D-NY). Akhromeyev astonishes Downey by proposing that the Soviets would consider reopening discussion of mutual weapons cuts in Europe, and accept a one-year testing ban on testing its new SS24 ballistic missile, if the US would ban testing the MX. Downey is elated. In his mind, the proposal is clear evidence of a thaw in US-Soviet relations, and a signal that the Soviets want to move forward with strategic arms talks. Akhromeyev says, according to Downey, “If such a proposal is put forth, it would be considered at the negotiations” between the two governments’ most senior negotiators. But Cheney refuses to listen. “Cheney did not want to allow the Russians to appear in any way reasonable,” Downey later recalls. “He doesn’t believe in negotiations. He’s completely rigid, states his position, and concedes nothing. There could be no negotiations when his position was: It’s my way or the highway.” Cheney later denies that Akhromeyev even made such an offer. Downey, who considers Cheney a friend even though they disagree on virtually everything, recalls saying after the meeting: “I said, ‘You can’t expect them to accept all our terms? You can’t expect them to surrender?’ He said, ‘Yeah, yes I can.’”
'Standing at Ground Zero' - Downey recalls one chilling Moscow moment with Cheney. The two are strolling in Red Square one evening. Downey later recalls: “It was a spectacular night and we walked over to Red Square. There were just the two of us and I asked him what he was thinking. He said, ‘I think we’re standing at Ground Zero.’” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 52-53]

Entity Tags: Reagan administration, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Sergei Akhromeyev, Thomas Downey

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Strategic Defense Initiative logo.Strategic Defense Initiative logo. [Source: United States Missile Defense Agency]President Reagan announces his proposal for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, later nicknamed “Star Wars”), originally conceived two years earlier (see 1981). SDI is envisioned as a wide-ranging missile defense system that, if it works, will protect the United States from nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union or other countries with ballistic missiles, essentially rendering nuclear weapons, in Reagan’s words, “impotent and obsolete.” Reagan says, “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.” Soviet leader Yuri Andropov’s response is unprececented in its anger (see March 27, 1983); Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrinyn says SDI will “open a new phase in the arms race.” [PBS, 2000; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 129]
US Hardliners 'Ecstatic' - Hardliners in and out of the Reagan administration are, in author J. Peter Scoblic’s characterization, “ecstatic, seeing SDI as the ultimate refutation of [the principle of] mutual assured destruction and therefore of the status quo, which left [the US] unable to seek victory over the Soviet Union.” The day after the speech, Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) sends Reagan a one-sentence letter: “That was the best statement I have heard from any president.”
'Less Suicidal' Adjunct to First Strike - Scoblic will write that if SDI is implemented as envisioned, “[a]lthough the Soviets would still be able to inflict enough damage that a first strike by the United States would be suicidal, it would be ‘less suicidal’ to the extent that such a concept made sense, which some Reagan officials believed it did. In short, SDI was a better adjunct to a first strike than it was a standalone defense. That made it critically destabilizing, which is why missile defense had been outlawed by [earlier treaties] in the first place.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 129-130]

Entity Tags: Strategic Defense Initiative, J. Peter Scoblic, Ronald Reagan, Anatoly Dobrinyn, Barry Goldwater, Yuri Andropov

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

American conservatives, recently contemptuous of former President Ronald Reagan (see 1988), use the fall of the Berlin Wall (see November 9, 1989 and After) to resurrect the image of Reagan as the victorious Cold Warrior who triumphed over world communism.
Historical Revisionism - In doing so, they drastically revise history. In the revised version of events, Reagan was a staunch, never-wavering, ideologically hardline conservative who saw the Cold War as an ultimate battle between good (Western democracy) and evil (Soviet communism). As author J. Peter Scoblic will describe the revision, it was Reagan’s implacable resolve and conservative principles—and the policies that emanated from those principles—that “forced the Soviet Union to implode.” Conservatives point to the so-called “Reagan Doctrine” of backing anti-Soviet insurgencies (see May 5, 1985) and to National Security Decision Directive 75, accepting nuclear war as a viable policy option (see January 17, 1983), as evidence of their assertions. But to achieve this revision, they must leave out, among other elements, Reagan’s long-stated goal of nuclear disarmament (see April 1981 and After, March-April 1982, November 20, 1983, and Late November 1983), and his five-year history of working with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear arms between the two nations (see December 1983 and After, November 16-19, 1985, January 1986, October 11-12, 1986, and December 7-8, 1987).
USSR Caused Its Own Demise - And, Scoblic will note, such revisionism does not account for the fact that it was the USSR which collapsed of its own weight, and not the US which overwhelmed the Soviets with an onslaught of democracy. The Soviet economy had been in dire straits since the late 1960s, and there had been huge shortages of food staples such as grain by the 1980s. Soviet military spending remained, in Scoblic’s words, “enormous, devouring 15 percent to 20 percent of [the USSR’s gross national product] throughout the Cold War (meaning that it imposed three times the economic burden of the US defense budget, on an economy that was one-sixth the size).” Reagan did dramatically increase US military spending during his eight years in office (see Early 1981 and After), and ushered new and potentially devastating military programs into existence (see 1981 and March 23, 1983). Conservatives will assert that Reagan’s military spending drove the USSR into implicit surrender, sending them back to the arms negotiation table with a newfound willingness to negotiate the drawdown of the two nations’ nuclear arsenals (see Early 1985). Scoblic will characterize the conservatives’ arguments: “Whereas [former President] Carter was left playing defense, the Gipper [Reagan] took the ball the final 10 yards against the Reds, spending them into the ground and leading the United States into the end zone.” Scoblic calls this a “superficially… plausible argument,” but notes that Carter, not Reagan, began the tremendous military spending increase (see Late 1979-1980), and more importantly, the USSR made no effort to match Reagan’s defense spending. “Its defense budget remained essentially static during the 1980s,” he will write. “In short, the Soviet Union suffered no economic distress as a result of the Reagan buildup.” Scoblic will also note that conservatives had long insisted that the USSR could actually outspend the US militarily (see November 1976), and never predicted that increasing US military spending could drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 145-149]

Entity Tags: J. Peter Scoblic, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

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