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Why Reagan's 'Star Wars' Defense Plan Remained Science Fiction

January 18, 2019 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

SDI sought to block incoming nuclear missiles with futuristic, space-based technology, but critics said the plan was always too far-fetched.

It was a plan that read like science fiction: A system armed with an array of space-based X-ray lasers would detect and deflect any nukes headed toward the United States.

President Ronald Reagan saw the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as a safeguard against the most terrifying Cold War outcome—nuclear annihilation. When Reagan first announced SDI on March 23, 1983, he called upon the U.S. scientists who “gave us nuclear weapons to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

From the start, politicians and scientists argued that SDI was overambitious. The technical hurdles required to achieve SDI (which included a number of proposed designs and weapons—not just space-based lasers) seemed so incredible at the time that Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy referred to it as ”reckless ‘Star Wars’ schemes.” The ‘Star Wars’ moniker stuck. Over the course of 10 years, the government spent up to $30 billion on developing the concept, but the futuristic program remained just that—futuristic. It was formally scrapped by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Despite criticisms from politicians, many scientists and others that the SDI was impractical, expensive and dangerous, the concept was developed during a frightening era.

A Defense Against the Soviets

“The Soviets had literally hundreds of ballistic missiles aimed at the U.S., and the idea was that SDI would render all of them obsolete,” says Matt C. Pinsker, adjunct professor of Homeland Security & Criminal Justice at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“The practical objection to SDI was that it was too expensive and not technologically feasible. The theoretical opposition to it was that it might ignite an arms race, though this does not make sense because there already was one.”

Vince Houghton, historian/curator at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., says he believes Reagan “truly despised nuclear weapons, and especially despised the threat they posed to the security of the United States. As much as people love to give him grief for what would end up being a trillion-dollar quagmire, or accuse him of wanting Star Wars so that the United States could have a legitimate advantage over the Soviets in a …read more


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