What the Strategic Defence Initiative achieved

On March 23rd, 1983, just 36 years ago to the day, President Ronald Reagan announced from the White House that he had initiated a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). The proposed system was designed to protect the United States from intercontinental and submarine-launched missiles. Its significance was its move away from deterrence to a defensive capability. The prevailing policy, called "Mutual assured destruction" (MAD), was designed to convince a would-be attacker that they, too, would be destroyed by a retaliatory strike from their opponents.

SDI was something new. It would use a dazzling array of new technologies to detect and destroy incoming missiles. The advanced weaponry that would have to be developed included lasers, x-ray lasers, particle-beam weapons, and space-based missiles to supplement ground-launched ones. President Reagan suggested that it could remove the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation from the lives of Americans.

The revolutionary concept was widely attacked, chiefly because of the instability it brought to a world that had learned to live with the nuclear stalemate. It was derided as "fantasy by some." They dubbed it "Star Wars," claiming that the technology to implement it could never be gained. Other people, and often the same people, warned of its dangers, claiming that it could be a first strike weapon, tempting an invincible America to attack without fear of retaliation. This was like listing a shield as a first strike weapon because it could allow its bearer to throw spears with impunity.

Despite the orchestrated chorus of derision from the left-leaning media of the time, Reagan pressed ahead, funding the research and development of many of the systems the SDI would need to incorporate. The Soviet Union made it a top priority to prevent such a system from being deployed. The 1986 summit in Reykjavik between Reagan and Gorbachev ended without agreement because abandoning SDI was top of the Soviet priorities, and it was the one thing Reagan would not give up. Thus agreement failed because of what many insisted was a "fantasy."

In fact Reagan's advisers had been briefed, pre-summit, by Oleg Gordievsky, who had been KGB Bureau Chief in London while secretly working for the British. He had been party to top Soviet thinking, and told the American team to hold fast on SDI because it would ultimately break a Soviet Union unable to compete economically and technologically with such a project. Even without SDI, the huge proportion of the Soviet budget allocated to the military had deprived its civilian sector of funds for investment. Its economy could not cope with a space arms race.

Within a few years Gordievsky's prediction was confirmed. The Communist empire collapsed in 1989. The Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union was dissolved shortly afterwards. If it was, indeed, "a fantasy," and "never more than a graphic," the Strategic Defence initiative became the graphic that changed history.