Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks to the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis at a Conference on the Strategic Defense Initiative

March 14, 1988

Well, Dr. Pfaltzgraff, thank you, and thank you all very much. Let me say it's a great honor to be addressing so many distinguished scientists, business leaders, and academics, so many who live the life of the mind and use their talents for the benefit of mankind.

I want to thank the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, a staunch ally when it comes to strategic defenses, for bringing this first-class group together on SDI's fifth anniversary. And it's good to see so many other friends here as well: Dr. Teller, who is proof that life begins at 80— [laughter] and 3 of SDI's best friends in the Congress, Senators Wallop and Quayle, Congressman Chappell; and the frontline offense of our strategic defense team, Ambassador Rowny, General Abrahamson, and Bill Graham. And we're all hoping this even will be chronicled in his indubitable fashion by Tom Clancy. [Laughter]

It hardly seems like 5 years since we first embarked together on this noble enterprise to find an alternative to nuclear terror. When I addressed the American people on that March 1983 day, I said it was time to turn the great technological might of our nation not to inventing ever more deadly weapons of destruction but instead to creating new instruments of peace—defensive technologies that harm no one. I said it would take years, probably decades, of effort. There would be setbacks and failures as well as successes. But we could not ignore this great challenge: to develop the means of rendering ballistic missiles impotent and obsolete. If anything, we overestimated the technological challenge back then. The technologies of our Strategic Defense Initiative have progressed more rapidly than many of us ever dreamed possible. The creative genius and ingenuity of U.S. and allied scientists and engineers and the steadfast support of so many in this room have helped make that rapid progress possible.

But if we've learned anything in 5 years, it's that it's sometimes easier to bring into being new technologies than it is to bring about new thinking on some subjects. Breakthroughs in physics are sometimes easier than breakthroughs in psyches. Perhaps the most astounding reaction to the announcement of our Strategic Defense Initiative was the sudden conversion of many on a certain side of the political spectrum to the strategy of mutual assured destruction, whose very appropriate acronym is MAD. I remember that only a few months before the announcement of SDI I received a letter from 41 academic leaders, presidents, and board chairmen of many of our most distinguished colleges and universities. And in that letter they called upon me to, and I quote, "to make a major investment in planning, negotiating, and cooperating to establish civilized, effective, and morally acceptable alternatives to nuclear war." We could no longer rely on the notion, they said, that, "no nation with nuclear weapons will pull the trigger." Well, I couldn't agree more. In fact, I've been waiting for another letter from that same group supporting SDI. [Laughter] I guess the mails are just a bit slow. [Laughter] I do promise to write back right away.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill said, I think aptly, that "no great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought." Sometimes, however, it's not so much mankind in general as it is the experts who have trouble changing the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought. The fact is, it would probably stop any inventor dead in his tracks if he listened for too long to the advice of experts in his field.

Throughout history, it seems, they have agreed on one basic principle: Progress must stop at the limits of their expertise. [Laughter] I'm fond of quoting Charles Duell, the Commissioner of the United States Office of Patents, who advised President McKinley in 1899 to abolish the Patent Office because, he said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." [Laughter] Of course, Presidents aren't immune from such blunders either. There's the story of Rutherford B. Hayes, who said after witnessing a scientific demonstration, "That's an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?" He was talking about the telephone.

Well, we've had our share of naysayers when it comes to SDI as well. But some of the difficulties they said were insurmountable have already been surmounted much more rapidly and effectively than anticipated. For example, our Delta 180 and, most recently, 181 tests, demonstrating among other things our ability to track fast-moving targets in space and distinguish between dummy warheads from the real thing, showed a technical ability that some scientists, concerned and otherwise, had said could not be achieved so quickly. But, you know, I don't give up hope for our opponents. It has been estimated that the sum total of human knowledge doubles every 8 years. Maybe they just need a little bit more time.

Now, for the impressive technological feats that we've recently seen, immense credit goes to the brilliant and hard-working scientists and engineers who made them possible. And I want them to know they are not working late into the night to construct a bargaining chip. They are building a better future, free from the nuclear terror, and generations to come will thank them. We'll continue to research SDI, to develop and test it, and as it becomes ready, we will deploy it.

There's one serious problem that the SDI program has had a great deal of difficulty with, however. It would probably be listed in the physics textbooks under the heading, "Inertial Resistance of Large Bodies"- [laughter] —in this case, some in the United States Congress. In every one of the last 4 years, Congress has cut back on our requests for SDI funding. And those cuts have already set the program back 1 to 9, years. In what can only be described as a self-fulfilling prophecy, they have voted down funding because they say SDI won't work.

Well, it won't if we don't develop it and test it. Congress should realize that it's no longer a question of whether there will be an SDI program or not. The only question will be whether the Soviets are the only ones who have strategic defenses, while the United States remains entirely defenseless. It seems to me that it was a watershed event when General Secretary Gorbachev, after years of concerted Soviet efforts to kill our SDI program and deny their own efforts in this area, stated publicly on TV to Tom Brokaw [NBC News] and the American people that when it comes to SDI "the Soviet Union is doing all that the United States is doing."

Well, everything, one might add, and more. The Soviet defense effort, which some call Red Shield, is now over 15 years old, and they have spent over $200 billion on it. That's 15 times the amount that we have spent on SDI. The Soviets already have the world's only deployed ABM defenses. Congress, in effect, killed our ASAT program. The Soviets already have an operational antisatellite system. While the United States Congress cuts back on our SDI, 10,000 top Soviet scientists and engineers work on their military laser program, alone.

Even now that the Soviets have acknowledged their own SDI-like program, some in Congress would bind us to an artificially restrictive interpretation of the ABM treaty that would effectively block development of our SDI program and perpetuate the Soviets' advantages in advanced strategic defenses. This effort makes even less sense when the Soviets aren't even abiding by the ABM treaty, while we are. Virtually all experts, even some of our biggest critics, agree that the Soviet construction of the large, phased-array radar at Krasnoyarsk is an out-and-out violation of the ABM treaty.

A few months ago, I raised a serious specter. I pointed out that it is not only in the development of strategic defenses that the United States could be left behind. A recent report released by the Department of Defense called "The Soviet Space Challenge" warns that the Soviet space program points in one disturbing direction, and I quote: "the methodical pursuit of a war-fighting capability in space." Soviet launch capacity far outstrips our own. We should be concerned that, together with the Long-standing program and the construction of the Krasnoyarsk radar as part of an updated early warning system, the Soviets may be preparing a nationwide ABM defense of their territory. In other words, they may be preparing to break out of the ABM treaty. In that eventuality, without SDI, we would be dangerously unprepared.

There has been a tendency by some in Congress to discuss SDI as if its funding could be determined purely by domestic considerations, unconnected to what the Soviets are doing. Well, that is, to put it plainly, irresponsible in the extreme. The fact is that many Americans are unaware that at this moment the United States has absolutely zero defenses against a ballistic missile attack. If even one missile were to be accidentally fired at the United States, the President would have no way of preventing the wholesale destruction of American lives. All he could do is retaliate—wipe out millions of lives on the other side. This is the position we find ourselves in; to perpetuate it forever is simply morally untenable. Vengeance is not the American way. It certainly cannot form any plausible Long-standing basis for Western strategy if a better form of deterrence can be established. Flexible response has worked. And we, of course, remain committed to our present strategy, but we remain equally committed to our search for a safer way to deter aggression.

It can be said that the old discredited policy of MAD is like two adversaries holding loaded guns to each other's head. It may work for awhile, but you sure better hope you don't make a slip. People who put their trust in MAD must trust it to work 100 percent—forever, no slip-ups, no madmen, no unmanageable crises, no mistakes-forever.

For those who are not reassured by such a prospect, and I count myself among their number, we must ask: Isn't it time we invented a cure for madness? Isn't it time to begin curing the world of this nuclear threat? If we have the medicine, can we in good conscience hold out on the patients? I believe that, given the gravity of the nuclear threat to humanity, any unnecessary delay in the development and deployment of SDI is unconscionable. And that's why we'll move forward, when ready, with phased deployments of SDI.

As of last August, the Department of Defense has begun focusing on six specific defensive technologies, and they are now moving ahead with them to the demonstration and validation phase. The development and deployment of an initial phase, when it is ready, will be undertaken in such a way that it provides a solid foundation for a continued evolution toward a fully comprehensive defense system, which is SDI's ultimate goal. Among the objectives of this first phase will be to strengthen deterrence by denying the Soviet Union confidence in their ability to achieve any objectives through the use of ballistic missiles. It will also protect the population of the United States and its allies against an accidental launch of ballistic missiles. Every extra minute that we leave the population of the West defenseless against ballistic missiles is one minute too long.

Equally important, SDI will continue to prove an irresistible force behind offensive arms reductions. Our SDI program, in fact, already has helped to make this world safer because, along with NATO's INF deployments, it was one of the major factors that led to the treaty signed by General Secretary Gorbachev and myself that will for the first time reduce the nuclear arsenals threatening mankind. It was an historic reversal of the trend of more and more nuclear weapons, and SDI helped make it happen.

At the same time, we must work to strengthen our conventional deterrence. SDI will likely prove instrumental here, too, by providing high-tech spin-offs for NATO's Conventional Defenses Initiative, CDI, that could help to address the imbalance of forces in Europe. And SDI helps to solve what is perhaps the greatest paradox of arms reduction: that reductions, if not carefully managed, could mean greater instability and risk. As arms are reduced to lower and lower levels, each violation could become more and more threatening. SDI can play a key role in solving this paradox of nuclear arms reductions. We may build an edifice of peace and arms reductions, but just like your homes, it needs an insurance policy against fire and theft. SDI is it: vital insurance against Soviet cheating.

A few days ago, when I went to Notre Dame, nostalgia was much the order of the day, but I did bring up an issue, a very serious issue. I spoke about when I was in college and a debate that I remember having in one of my classes in those post-World War I days, when the bomber was just being recognized as the potent weapon that it later became. Our class debated whether or not Americans—people who, to our way of thinking, stood for high moral standards—would ever drop bombs from a plane on a city. And the class was about evenly divided. Half felt it might be necessary. The other felt that bombing civilians would always be beyond the pale of decency, totally unacceptable human conduct, no matter how heinous the enemy. We believed that young men in America would refuse such an order. But a decade later, during World War II, few, if any, who had been in that room objected to our country's wholesale bombing of cities under the hard pressures of total war. Civilization's standards of acceptable conduct had changed.

It's hard to say they changed for the better. We have the opportunity to reverse this trend, to base the peace of this world on security rather than threats, on defense rather than on retaliation. Those who say it can't be done, who stand in the way of progress and insist that technology stops here—I plead with them to consider what they're saying. For no matter how effective arms reduction negotiations ever are, we can never "uninvent" the nuclear weapon. We can never erase the knowledge of how to build a ballistic missile. If they were able to succeed in stopping SDI, then we would be left forever with that loaded pistol to our heads, with an insecure and morally tenuous peace based forever on the threat of retaliation.

But the world is rapidly changing, and technology won't stop here. All we can do is make sure that technology becomes the ally and protector of peace, that we build better shields rather than sharper and more deadly swords. In so doing, maybe we can help to bring an end to the brutal legacy of modern warfare. We can stop the madness from continuing into the next century. We can create a better, more secure, more moral world, where peace goes hand in hand with freedom from fear forever.

Thank you all very much. God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 10:56 a.m. in the Regency Ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. In his opening remarks, he referred to Dr. Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., president of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis; Dr. Edward Teller, Associate Director Emeritus of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Senators Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming and Dan Quayle of Indiana; Representative Bill Chappell, Jr., of Florida; Edward L. Rowny, Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State on Arms Control Matters; Lt. Gert. James A. Abrahamson, USAF, Director of Strategic Defense Initiative Organization; William R. Graham, Jr., Science Advisor to the President and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and novelist Tom Clancy.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis at a Conference on the Strategic Defense Initiative Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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