Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. March 23, 1983 Oval Office Speech on “SDI”.
February 6, 2011
by Jason Saltoun-Ebin
* Please cite as: Jason Saltoun-Ebin,"The Reagan Files: The Strategic Defense Initiative," (www.thereaganfiles.com), Feb. 6, 2011. www.thereaganfiles.com
President Reagan called his plan to build a national anti-ballistic missile system the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Labeled “Star Wars” by the press because the plan required placing weapons in space, the goal, as Reagan stated in his March 23, 1983 speech announcing SDI, was nothing less than making nuclear weapons “obsolete.”
The idea of a defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) had been one scientists, like Dr. Edward Teller (father of the Hydrogen bomb), had been working on since the 1970s. Reagan, of course, was also interested in the idea of being able to defend against attacking ICBMs, and much note has been made of his 1979 visit to NORAD. During that visit, according to his long-time adviser Martin Anderson who was at NORAD with him, Reagan asked what could be done if an ICBM was launched at the United States. Reagan was told, according to the story, that all that could be done was track the ICBM -- it couldn’t be stopped. Bothered by the fact that a U.S. president’s could do nothing to stop an ICBM once it was in flight, Reagan told Anderson on the plane home that the U.S. needed to find some way of defending itself against an ICBM.
Two-years later, now in his first year as the President of the United States, Reagan made fixing the U.S. economy his number one priority, but also pushed forward with a drastic increase in defense spending, with much of the money going towards modernizing U.S. defense forces and security assistance for important allies around the world. Of course projects were also being funded that had the potential to be a defense against an attacking ICBM, but it wasn’t until March 23, 1983 that Reagan publicly tasked the scientists “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.”
As the NORAD story shows, the idea behind a strategic defense against ICBMs was something Reagan had thought about before becoming president in 1981. Reagan had also met Dr. Teller prior to becoming president, and had even put Dr. Teller on his White House Science Council. Nevertheless, Dr. Teller went public in the summer of 1982 on the television show Firing Line with the fact that he thought the Reagan administration was not taking his claims seriously that the Soviet Union was way ahead of the United States in producing a new class of offensive weapons that would be numerous times more destructive than the Hydrogen bomb. Reagan happened to have seen that interview, and weeks later his administration was setting up a one-on-one for Reagan and Dr. Teller, which took place on September 14, 1982. In preparation for the meeting, Dr. Teller wrote Reagan a two-page letter in which he called his research “the most important one in strategic military affairs since the advent of the hydrogen bomb” and then requested an additional $55 million for the next calendar year. The Reagan Files has obtained Dr. Teller’s July 23, 1982 letter and is the first to publish the entire letter, along with Dr. Keyworth’s (President Reagan’s Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy) memorandum to President Reagan recommending that he meet with Dr. Teller, “in light of his exceptional contributions to the nation, and his intense support and loyalty to you.” Keyworth also explained Dr. Teller’s work: “The basic concept involves using the immense energy released in a nuclear explosion to ‘pump’ a laser, thereby directing that energy in a straight line over great distances to strike a target.”
About six months after Dr. Teller’s September White House visit, President Reagan announced in his March 23, 1983 Oval Office speech that he was initiating a research program with the goal of being able to destroy attacking ICBMs. Dr. Teller’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory along with High Frontier (another organization researching the possibility of creating a missile defense), received substantial funding to produce a weapon that could destroy attacking ICBMs.
Reagan so strongly believed in the possibility of creating a defense against attacking ICBMs that he refused to negotiate just the possibility of limiting testing to laboratories during the 1986 Reykjavik Summit with General Secretary Gorbachev. If Reagan had agreed to limit testing to laboratories, Reagan and Gorbachev likely would have agreed to an across the board 50 percent reduction in offensive ballistic missiles, precisely the weapons Reagan was hoping SDI would make “obsolete.” This contradiction has led scholars to question Reagan’s motivations for refusing to limit SDI research when doing so would have substantially and more quickly accomplished the same goal of a working SDI. (A working SDI, the Reagan administration conceded, would never have been able to stop every incoming ICBM.) This seeming contradiction suggests that Reagan might have had another motivation for refusing to limit SDI testing other than, as he told Gorbachev, he promised the American people he would not kill SDI.
The newly declassified documents do not conclusively answer that question, but a strong inference can be made that SDI testing outside of the laboratory (by that Reagan meant “testing in space”) was secretly being linked to testing of a new class of offensive weapons, possibly the weapon that Dr. Teller had described to Reagan in his July 23, 1982 letter. Evidence for this claim comes from a newly released June 11, 1985 memo written by Dr. Keyworth to Reagan’s chief of staff, Donald Regan, in anticipation of Dr. Teller’s visit with President Reagan that afternoon. In this important memo Dr. Keyworth informs Regan that Teller will be meeting with Reagan this afternoon to discuss SDI related accomplishments at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, “keying on the bomb-pumped laser.” However, Dr. Keyworth fears that Dr. Teller “will largely dwell on tentative developments in the bomb-pumped X-ray laser, or ‘Excaliber.’ … If Excaliber were to work as advertised it would be an incredible weapon. [Teller] may also make the case that while the Soviets are working on this bomb-pumped X-ray technology, we are not. In fact, we are funding investigation of this technology through DOE. [Teller’s] difficulty is that we have not made it centerpiece option within the SDI.” The Keyworth memo continues: “Were it to work (its feasibility is uncertain), this device would be a powerful preemptive attack weapon – and destabilizing. It therefore tends to run counter to the spirit of the President’s SDI, as well as the capabilities of all other technologies now under development by the SDIO which can only be effectively used in a defensive mode. For this reason, and because it is nuclear, we have deliberately kept this program out of SDI’s limelight.”
Historians still continue to debate the impact SDI had on the end of the Cold War. With the release of documents from the former Soviet Union, critics of SDI have evidence suggesting that the Soviet Union, though genuinely fearful of SDI, did not spend any additional funds to counter or try to keep up with Reagan's funding of SDI. If true, the arguement that SDI forced the Soviet Union into a bankrupting arms race no longer holds water. Gorbachev told Reagan as much at Reykjavik saying that the Soviet Union would not take a symmetrical response.
Supporters of SDI also argue that Reagan's support for SDI ushered in a new era by moving the United States away from the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction and towards a policy that would help to ensure the survival of people should a nuclear attack be launched against U.S. cities (rather than at military infrastructure). SDI supporters also contend that President Reagan had no choice but to move forward with SDI because should the Soviets have gotten there first, the Soviet's would have gained a strategic advantage over the U.S.
President Reagan, SDI’s most important supporter, despite the evidence and Gorbachev's insistence that SDI could be used for offensive purposes, continued to argue that SDI would only be used for defensive purposes. To prove his "defense only" intent, Reagan offered to share the "benefits" of SDI with the Soviet Union or even turn control of SDI over to an international organization. But Gorbachev seemed to understand something that Reagan never could: sharing SDI technology with the Soviet Union, no matter if just for defensive purposes, would drastically compromise U.S. national security. Gorbachev was not the first to tell Reagan as much: during a September 7, 1987 NSPG meeting after Reagan asked “Why can’t we agree now that if we get to a point where we want to deploy we will simply make all the information available about each others’ systems so that we can both have defenses,’ he was told “I don’t believe we could ever do that,” by Secretary of Defense Weinberger. Ken Adelman, the Director of the Arms Control Disarmament Agency, immediately added, “Mr. President, that would be the most massive technical transfer the western world has ever known. … If they understood our system that well it would be easy for them to move to countermeasures.”
With these questions in mind, in 2002, while researching the Reagan administration for the presidential biographer, Richard Reeves, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for all material related to the Strategic Defense Initiative. Years went by without a response. Then, in October 2010, over eight years since our May 2002 FOIA request, and almost three years after Reeves’ book, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination was published, the SDI material we had asked for was finally starting to get released.
To date, nearly 4,500 pages of documents have been released responsive to our FOIA request. In honor of President Reagan’s 100th birthday, www.thereaganfiles.com has posted online some of the more important documents about the SDI that have been released responsive to our FOIA request. The document set below represents only some of the documents that The Reagan Files has obtained thanks to the FOIA. Documents that are not already online will be added throughout the month of February, 2011.
Most importantly, if you find this website useful, be sure to show your support for The Reagan Files by making a donation or ordering a copy of “The Reagan Files: The Untold Story of Reagan’s Top-Secret Efforts to Win the Cold War.” Without your support, websites like these would be impossible! I am also deeply indebted to Richard Reeves (now at the USC Annenberg School for Communications) and Dr. Salim Yaqub at the UCSB Center for Cold War Studies for their support.
SDI DOCUMENT SET
July 23, 1982: Letter from Dr. Teller to President Reagan regarding new nuclear weapons technology.
Dr. Teller tells Reagan: “Because of the potential of these new types of nuclear weapons, this matter is the most important one in strategic military affairs since the advent of the hydrogen bomb.” Dr. Teller also asks for $55 million for the next calendar year to fund his research.
July 29, 1982: Memo from Dr. Keyworth to President Reagan. Subject: Letter from Edward Teller.
President Reagan’s March 23, 1983 speech from the Oval Office on National Defense and the Strategic Defense Initiative.
On March 23, 1983 President Reagan gave his speech on national defense in which he tasked the scientists “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.”
The full text of President Reagan’s speech can be accessed at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library website by clicking here: Reagan’s March 23, 1983 speech on National Defense.
March 25, 1983: NSDD 85: Eliminating the Threat from Ballistic Missiles.
On March 25, 1983 President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 85, “Eliminating the Threat from Ballistic Missiles.” NSDD 85 has been declassified in full.
April 18, 1983: NSSD 6-83: Study On Eliminating The Threat Posed By Ballistic Missiles.
On April 18, 1983 President Reagan signed National Security Study Directive 6-83, “Study on Eliminating The Threat Posed By Ballistic Missiles.” The NSSD is still very heavily redacted, including the entire section on “Future Security Strategy”.
April 28, 1983: Dr. Teller Fact Sheet.
Responsive to many press questions surrounding Dr. Teller’s influence on President Reagan’s decision to give his “SDI” speech, the White House Counsel’s office asked the Office of Science and Technology Policy to create a fact sheet for internal use of all the instances in which Dr. Teller might have seen President Reagan. The “fact sheet” indicates that Dr. Teller was at the White House on Sept. 14, 1982 to meet with President Reagan, and on March 17 and 18, 1983 Dr. Teller was at the White House as part of his duties as a member of the White House Science Council.
The fact sheet concludes, “In the time since March 23, Jay Keyworth and other senior White House officials have repeatedly emphasized that the concept of strategic defense was long-held by the President and that his proposal was not based on any particular technology and was not the result of any particular person’s views or advice.”
July 5, 1983: Letter from Dr. Keyworth to Dr. Teller.
Dec. 9, 1983: Letter from Dr. Keyworth to Sec. Def. Weinberger.
Jan. 6, 1984: NSDD 119: “Strategic Defense Initiative.”
May 17, 1984: Letter from Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham to Rep. Newt Gingrich.
May 22, 1984: Letter from Dr. Teller to Dr. Keyworth.
July 8, 1984: Transcript of Dr. Keyworth’s Voice of America Interview on SDI & ASATS.
Oct. 1, 1984: Memo from Mike Havey to Keyworth, “President’s Strategic Defense Initiative.”
This very important eight page memo reviews all the major obstacles for SDI and recommends a path forward.
Dec. 17, 1984: Memo from David Owen to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Mr. Owen urges PM Thatcher to express the British Government’s opposition to SDI.
Jan. 4, 1985: Memo: Herbert Meyer (National Intelligence Commission) to DCI Casey. Subject: “Thatcher and SDI.”
Mr. Meyer informs DCI Casey that David Hart informs him that Thatcher, “Last evening…was for the first time willing to seriously consider the idea” of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Jan. 31, 1985: Note from Dr. Keyworth to National Security Adviser McFarlane.
Dr. Keyworth suggests “we rename the SDI ‘Project A’…the State of the Union would be an excellent time to move away from ‘Star Wars’ and label the SDI as ‘Project A.’”
Feb. 7, 1985: “Some Thoughts on the NATO Alliance and The Strategic Defense Initiative,” by Dr. Keyworth.
Keyworth concludes, “In looking to the future, the President is therefore focusing upon the forest rather than the trees. His view stretches toward the next century, and he is concerned at the lack of options he sees for his successors. It was this long-term issue, not some delusion that we might pull some incredible technological rabbit out of the hat that made him willing to rethink our collective national course. It was his conclusion – his vision – that we not continue to depend solely upon the steadily increasing nuclear firepower to ensure our posterity. Rather – and this is the essence of what he said two years ago – we should look to our strong suit, technology, in creating better options for our national defense.”
Feb. 21, 1985: Statement on The President’s Strategic Defense Initiative by Lt. Gen. Abrahamson, Dir. SDIO before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
March 20, 1985: Memo for President Reagan from National Security Adviser McFarlane. Subject: “SDI’s Second Anniversary.”
President Reagan writes on the bottom of the memo, “I agree – argument for SDI is that it can make possible the elimination of nuclear missiles.” Attachments:
A. Feb. 27, 1985: Memo from Dr. Keyworth to McFarlane. Subject: SDI Recommended Presidential Action.
B. Feb. 27, 1985: Letter from Dr. Keyworth to Sec. Def. Weinberger.
C. Feb. 27, 1985: Letter from Dr. Keyworth to President Reagan.
March 25, 1985: Memo from DCI Casey to Dr. Keyworth and Herb Meyer.
April 2, 1985: Memo from Mike Havey to Keyworth, “SDIO Management (Our Conversation This AM)”
April 3, 1985: Memo from Dr. Keyworth to Chief of Staff Don Regan. Subject: “The President’s Defense Strategy.”
This five page memo reviews the SDI and recommends actions to move Reagan’s defense strategy forward.
April 22, 1985: Testimony on the SDI by Sidney Drell before the Defense Subcommittee of The Senate Appropriations Committee.
Available at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
April 30, 1985: Letter from Dr. Keyworth to McFarlane.
May 22, 1985: Memo from Hoffman to Ikle, “An Emerging Strategy for Encompassing the Demise of SDI.”
May 28, 1985: Memo prepared by David Hart: “SDI and the ABM Treaty.” Attachment of Gallup Poll, “Star Wars” April 17-22 1985.
May 30, 1985: NSDD 172: “Presenting the Strategic Defense Initiative.”
This 14 page NSDD is declassified in full. (The previous redacted version listed two redactions: 1) page 2, paragraph on Our Assumptions About Deterrence. The redacted sentence reads: “Instead, our current strategy focuses on being able to deny basic Soviet war aims by holding at risk the military, industrial and C3 capabilities needed to carry out and exploit aggression.” Second redaction was on page 4 in the paragraph on Soviet Research and Development on Advanced Defenses. The redaction was in the middle of the sentence starting “Furthermore, current patterns of Soviet research and development (redacted) to a long-standing…” The unredacted sentence now reads “Furthermore, current patterns of Soviet research and development, ranging from demonstrating a capability with their SD-X-12 surface-to-air missile against some ballistic missiles to a long-standing and intensive research program in many of the same basic technological areas which our SDI program will address, indicate that these trends will continue apace for the foreseeable future.”
Draft Letter from Keyworth to Pat Buchanan expressing Keyworth’s concern that SDI funding will be cut unless immediate action is taken.
June 3, 1985: Memo from Singer to Keyworth, “A Different SDIO Organization.”
Memo starts: “The present structure of SDIO does not appear to be conducive to the accomplishment of its mission.”
June 3, 1985: Memo from Samuel Wyman to Keyworth, “Application of SDI Technologies to Conventional Force Modernization.”
June 4, 1985: Memo from Keyworth to Don Regan, “Vice President’s European Trip; and Draft Legislation for SDI/European Partners.”
In this 1 ½ page memo, Keyworth outlines for Regan two lingering questions about SDI, “Where are we going” and “How will we manage the alliance” and argues that VP Bush should have clear language to deliver to the Allies during his visit next month. “One of the most effective signals we could send would be a bipartisan resolution … clearly defining our cooperative intentions.”
Attachment: May 31, 1985: Memo from Richard Allen to George Keyworth. “Suggested Language for NATO Cooperation Under SDI Procurement.”
June 11, 1985: Memo from Dr. Keyworth to Chief of Staff Don Regan. Subject: “Dr. Edward Teller’s Visit With the President (11 June 1985).
In this important 1 ½ page memo, Keyworth informs Regan that Teller will be meeting with Reagan this afternoon to discuss SDI related accomplishments at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, “keying on the bomb-pumped laser.” However, Keyworth fears that Teller “will largely dwell on tentative developments in the bomb-pumped X-ray laser, or ‘Excaliber.’ … If Excaliber were to work as advertised it would be an incredible weapon. [Teller] may also may the case that while the Soviets are working on this bomb-pumped X-ray technology, we are not. In fact, we are funding investigation of this technology through DOE. [Teller’s] difficulty is that we have not made it centerpiece option within the SDI.
“Were it to work (its feasibility is uncertain), this device would be a powerful preemptive attack weapon – and destabilizing. It therefore tends to run counter to the spirit of the President’s SDI, as well as the capabilities of all other technologies now under development by the SDIO which can only be effectively used in a defensive mode. For this reason, and because it is nuclear, we have deliberately kept this program out of SDI’s limelight.”
ND (but marked 10/85 in top of page). Memo from Dr. Keyworth/Herbert E. Meyer to DCI Casey. Subject: Joint Operation of SDI.
This memo was likely not sent as neither Keyworth nor Meyer initialed the memo as is usually done. The 4 page document lists two objects: 1) To protect and secure SDI, and 2) To shift the arms- control process off its present, destructive track and onto a track that leads toward genuine stability. “This memo proposes that the President offer to work with our allies, as well as our adversaries, to establish a mechanism for all countries to participate in joint operation of future strategic defenses so that no country need be threatened by nuclear ballistic missiles.” The memo also suggests that Reagan make the proposal to Gorbachev at Geneva in November and that he suggest follow up meetings in either the arms control negotiations or a separate negotiating process.
Oct. 1, 1985: Memo from Laird to Keyworth, “Fighting Semantic Confusion/Manipulation.”
The two paragraph memo arguing that Reagan refuse to answer questions referring to SDI as “Star Wars.”
October 11, 1985: NSDD 192: “The ABM Treaty and the SDI Program.”
October 22, 1985. Memo from Sam Wyman (OSTP) to Dr. Keyworth. Subject: Current Status of US/UK SDI Cooperation.
The one page memo is an overview of the final report on the US/UK Joint Working Group on SDI Participation. The report could not be located.
Oct. 25, 1985: Note from William Graham to Keyworth,
“Attached is an honestly conducted poll on SDI (by the Committee on Present Danger). In short, it confirms statistically what we already knew intuitively – the real people of this country strongly support SDI.” Attachment: Oct. 18, 1985 poll conducted by Penn & Schoen Associates “Poll findings on the SDI and the U.S. defense effort.”
Nov. 1, 1985: Memo from McMains (OSTP) to Keyworth and Singer, “Results on Initiatives Groups Red-Team Effort on Control Sharing.”
The two page memo lists the major concerns expressed at the Oct. 31, 1985 meeting on Control Sharing of SDI. “The major issue has to do with the consequences to the NATO/Warsaw Pact balance when the nuclear umbrella is removed. It has been said that a successful SDI deployment would make the world safe for war in Europe. Since it appears that the imbalance will remain or get worse, discussion of control sharing focuses concern on the possibility that the threshold of war in NATO could be lowered.”
Nov. 4, 1985: Letter from Lt. Gen. Daniel Graham (High Frontier) to Dr. Keyworth.
Nov. 6, 1985: Memo from Bob McMains to Dr. Keyworth and Sid Singer. Subject: “SDI Legislative Activities.”
Click here to download:85.11.6 LA.pdf
Nov. 6, 1985: Memo from Lt. Col. Bailey to Dr. Keyworth and Dr. Singer. Subject: SDI Management Status. Attachment: SDIO Charter.
Nov. 8, 1985: Letter from Dr. Teller to Secretary Weinberger.
Dr. Teller writes: “Let me thank you for your strong, consistent and remarkable effort in leading SDI. Without you, this cornerstone of our defense would not exist. I consider you as the one an who can bring about needed changes.”
November 1985: Report of the Ad Hoc Committee On The Potential Benefits To U.S. Industry From SDI/IST Scientific Program. Prepared by the Institute for Defense Analysis.
Only the first 13 pages have been copied. The rest of the report can be found at the Reagan Library. (RRPL: WHSOF: Keyworth, George. Folder: SDI Nov. 30, 1985 Box 15.)
Dec. 20, 1985: Letter from Dr. Keyworth to Lt. Gen. Graham.
Dr. Keyworth writes: “We agree that the C3 aspects of non-nuclear strategic defense should be different than the C3 requirements for offensive nuclear forces, and that the consequences of erroneous enablement of a competent defensive system would be dwarfed by the consequences of a similar error with central nuclear forces.”
Jan. 31, 1986: Memo from Joe Bailey (OSTP) to John McTague. Subject: SDI General Information.
The two page memo gives a summary of recent SDI related activities.
May 9, 1986: Letter from Senator Levin to SDIO Director Abrahamson objecting to “the Defense Department’s refusal to provide a copy of the assessment report…”
A draft response is attached.
The following list of Exit Interviews were conducted by Lt. Col. Baucom for an official history of the SDI. The Exit Interviews are located in a separate box in the research room at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library labeled “SDI Exit Interviews.” The Exit Interviews were not released in response to my FOIA request, and have been available for research at least since 2001.
Dr. Edward Teller, July 6, 1987.
Dr. George Keyworth, Sept. 28, 198
Mr. Joseph Coors, July 31, 1987.
Mr. Jaquelin H. Hume, Oct. 28, 1987.