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Way out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War

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Using the Star Wars missile defense program as a magnifying glass on his presidency, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Frances FitzGerald gives us a wholly original portrait of Ronald Reagan. Drawing on extensive research, FitzGerald shows how Reagan managed to get billions in funding for a program that was technologically impossible by exploiting the fears of the American public. The Reagan who emerges from FitzGerald's book was a gifted politician with a deep understanding of the national psyche, and an ...
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Overview


Using the Star Wars missile defense program as a magnifying glass on his presidency, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Frances FitzGerald gives us a wholly original portrait of Ronald Reagan. Drawing on extensive research, FitzGerald shows how Reagan managed to get billions in funding for a program that was technologically impossible by exploiting the fears of the American public. The Reagan who emerges from FitzGerald's book was a gifted politician with a deep understanding of the national psyche, and an executive almost totally disengaged from the policies of his administration. Both appalling and funny, Way Out There in the Blue is the most penetrating study of Reagan's presidency to date.
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Editorial Reviews

Scott Tobias
Considering the sweeping influence of his administration, Ronald Reagan remains a strangely elusive figure--so elusive, in fact, that his official biographer, Edmund Morris, opted to invent a fictionalized version of himself to sketch in the empty spaces. But Frances FitzGerald, who sorted through the cloudy intricacies of the Vietnam War in her previous book (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fire In The Lake), finds a more direct and illuminating route into his political mind with Way Out In The Blue, a sprawling history of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Better known by the more seductive name "Star Wars," SDI is the antiballistic missile system first introduced by Reagan during a notorious speech given in March 1983, when his presidency was at its lowest ebb. The idea of designing an "impregnable shield" in space to protect the country from nuclear holocaust was a fantasy that appealed to the general public, which feared any further escalation of the Cold War. But defense experts fumed, not least because such a system wasn't remotely plausible. Seventeen years later, SDI still isn't remotely plausible, yet congress recently allocated another $6.6 billion to a similar program, adding to the $60 billion already poured into the most expensive research project in American history. How could this happen? As FitzGerald argues, Star Wars is Reagan's greatest rhetorical triumph, an empty promise rooted in dubious science, mythology, and the movies, and carried out on the force of his charisma and imagination. Sorting through a dizzying array of personalities and technical jargon, FitzGerald investigates Reagan's detached, corporate-style approach to leadership and the tricky role SDI played in negotiations with the Soviets. Way Out There In The Blue rehashes a portrait of Reagan that's common to many left-leaning historical accounts, but by using Star Wars as an angle into his administration (and mystique), the author points to a disturbing legacy in which dreams and policy are virtually indistinguishable.
The Onion AV Club
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Anyone who thinks that Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" program is dead should read this shocking book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Fitzgerald (Fire in the Lake, etc.). The former president's "Star Wars" plan--for laser weapons and space-based missiles intended to make the U.S. invulnerable to nuclear attack--was pure science fiction, writes Fitzgerald, and she notes that no technological breakthrough has occurred that would make Clinton's modified SDI program remotely feasible. Yet the U.S. has spent $3 to $4 billion a year on "Star Wars" in almost every single year since Reagan left office (and, as Fitzgerald observes, there has been almost no public discussion on this issue for several years). Why? The answer, suggests Fitzgerald in this painstakingly detailed study, lies partly in the way "Star Wars" was sold to the American public. By her reckoning, Reagan adroitly filled the role of mythic American Everyman endowed with homespun virtues. Prodded by the Republican right, by military hardliners such as limited-nuclear-war advocate Edward Teller and by deputy national security adviser Robert McFarlane (who, ironically, intended SDI primarily as a bargaining chip with the Soviets), Reagan wholeheartedly embraced the Star Wars concept for ideological reasons; he persuaded the people of its necessity by tapping into America's "civil religion" rooted in 19th-century Protestant beliefs in American exceptionalism and a desire to make the U.S. an invulnerable sanctuary. Part Reagan biography, part political analysis of "his greatest rhetorical triumph," Fitzgerald's study offers a withering behind-the-scenes look at the Iran arms-for-hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra scandals, Reagan's sparring with Gorbachev, arms-control talks such as the Reykjavik summit (at which both leaders almost negotiated away all their nuclear arms but were stalled over SDI) and the grinding of the wheels of the military-industrial establishment. Her book is sure to trigger debate. Agent, Robert Lescher. Author tour. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, President Reagan, who viewed himself as Salesman-in-Chief, believed that a leader has to dream. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was Reagan's dream of an impenetrable shield located in space that would destroy any nuclear missiles launched at the United States, observes Fitzgerald, 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. This massive, impressively researched investigation of the SDI, or "Star Wars," defense, incorporates a fascinating portrayal of a president buffeted by Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and his faction of conservatives, and Secretary of State George Shultz, the leader of the moderates. Reagan's evolving relationship with Soviet president Gorbachev is vividly told through accounts of the Geneva and Reykjavik summits: Reagan is credited with promoting Gorbachev's plan for changing the Soviet Union from the "evil empire" to a modern capitalistic state. Caution: the lengthy, complicated discussions on SDI technology and missile diplomacy are not for the casual reader. Highly recommended for academic and specialized collections on foreign policy and strongly recommended for larger public libraries.--Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Alan Brinkley
What is perhaps most striking is how clearly, eloquently and engagingly FitzGerald manages to describe a set of obscure and complicated events . . . One of the best inner histories of the Reagan administration yet to appear.
The New York Times Book Review
Scott Stossel
...by far the most comprehensive and readable treatment of the Readan Administration's approach to the Soviet Union yet written...
The Boston Book Review
Walker
This well-written book packs a lot into its 500 pages. It has far more laugh-out-loud anecdotes than a reader has any right to expect from a tome as full of arms-control jargon as this one necessarily is. It even has chortlesome footnotes.
The Christian Science Monitor
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684844169
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 4/1/1900
  • Pages: 592
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.55 (h) x 1.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Frances Fitzgerald is the acclaimed author of America Revised and Cities on a Hill. Her study of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt


Author's Note

This book began with my interest in the appeal Reagan had for the American public and the direct connection he made to the national imagination. Demonstrably Reagan did much to restore the national morale even while the achievements of his administration seemed elusive to many. To study his rhetoric and political persona is to learn much about this country, and in particular about the myths, traditions and stories that sustain us and color our thinking about the world. Star Wars, or the promise of a space-shield to protect the country against destruction by Soviet nuclear missiles, seemed to me to be the place to begin since it was surely his greatest rhetorical triumph. What other President, after all, could persuade the country of something that did not, and could not for the foreseeable future, exist?

Reagan was an unusual politician and a most unusual chief executive. In the "kiss and tell" books of the late 1980s and early 1990s former officials told stories about Reagan's ignorance of policy issues, his disengagement from the work of the government, his distance from other people and so forth. These books, coming on top of the revelations of the Iran-contra affair, led many Americans to conclude that Reagan was an aging simpleton with a few strongly held ideas. But this is not what those books say, nor is it a conclusion that can be drawn from his life and career. Reagan puzzled me for a long time. A number of his close associates described him as living in a world of rhetoric, performance and perceptions. But it was years before I understood the extent to which this was the case.

The book opens with a chapter about Reagan'ssuccess in tapping into the mother lode of the American civil religion, with its substrata in nineteenth-century American evangelical Protestantism. As Reagan demonstrated, the national mythology is no dull centrist amalgam but rather a sparkling collection of elements, which, if arrayed on a spectrum, could appeal to the political right, center or left. His range and suppleness as a politician came from his ability to move through that spectrum, combining and recombining the elements at will.

Still, the Star Wars phenomenon was clearly not just of his making, but a collective enterprise.

Reagan's 1983 Star Wars speech surprised everyone in his administration except for a few White House aides. His call for an initiative to make ballistic missiles "impotent and obsolete" was initially ridiculed in Washington and apparently dismissed. Two years later, however, the administration launched a major research program in anti-missile technologies, the Strategic Defense Initiative. In congressional hearings senior Defense Department officials, distinguished scientists and strategic policy analysts argued about laser weapons and boost-phase defenses as if these weapons were about to jump off the assembly line. Television news programs showed animated renderings of space-weaponry destroying the entire Soviet ICBM fleet. In Geneva, U.S. arms control negotiators called upon the Soviets to agree to the deployment of anti-missile defenses and to the radical reduction, and eventual elimination, of nuclear arms.

How could this happen? How did Reagan's unworldly idea get through the gauntlet of technical experts in the Pentagon, the administration and Congress? What did administration officials hope to achieve in the arms talks? And what of the Soviet reaction? Was it true, as some said, that the idea of Star Wars frightened the Soviets into ending the Cold War?

How the rhetoric of Star Wars came into being and how it played out in Washington and in U.S.-Soviet negotiations as the Cold War came to an end is the main subject of this book. The quest for anti-missile weapons, however, continued after Reagan left office, and because in 1999 both the Clinton administration and Congress resolved to deploy a national missile defense system, I bring the quest up to date in an afterword.

Americans have always been skeptical of politicians and experts, but during the Cold War they trusted their government with national life and death. When it came to the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons and the balance of terror, they assumed their officials knew what they were doing and told them the truth. Yet to look back over the public record of the late 1970s and 1980s is to be struck by how little of what was said about these subjects had anything to do with reality. It is to enter a world of phantoms and mirages.

Reagan and his foreign policy advisers came into office on a wave of hyperbole about the Soviet threat designed to rally the American public to support a major military build-up. A number of Reagan's advisers belonged to an ideological faction whose views had not been substantially represented in Washington since the 1950s. Like their counterparts in the domestic arena who proudly proclaimed that they had come to create a "revolution" in government, they were radicals, in the sense of going back to the roots, and their ambitions were high. Like their forebears in the Eisenhower years, they wanted to roll back the Soviet empire and win the Cold War. When they came into office, they conditioned their public statements, and often the official estimates, in regard to Soviet intentions and capabilities upon these ambitions. Essentially they were not much interested in the ins and outs of what was happening in Moscow.

By 1983 the newly empowered enthusiasts -- dominant in the administration -- had managed to upset the elaborate system of conventions developed over two decades by the U.S., its NATO allies and the Soviet Union. The conventions on arms control were never well understood by the public because they involved a set of abstractions and conditionals which few but the experts could keep any account of, and because they did not stop the arms race but permitted both sides to develop prodigious numbers of nuclear weapons and preposterous strategies to go with them. Reagan was at one with the public on this score. The conventions nonetheless served to allay tensions and keep the risk of a nuclear war at bay. In flouting them the enthusiasts managed to create the worst period of friction in U.S.-Soviet relations since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

The public reaction to this friction permitted those within the administration who believed in reinstating the conventions to come to the fore. The "pragmatists" were, however, in the minority, and for most of the years of the two Reagan administrations U.S. policies toward the Soviet Union reflected results of every skirmish in the long and inconclusive struggle between the two camps. Both sides claimed Reagan as their own, but he never decided between them. In fact the president played almost no role in working out the policies of his administration.

When the SDI program got underway, discourse about strategic issues lifted off from reality altogether.

Behind Reagan and his "dream" of a shield against missiles and a non-nuclear world, the two warring factions within the administration pursued separate and contradictory agendas and fought for control over policy. With both sides vowing allegiance to the "dream," the battles within the administration became a shadow play in which maneuvers were hidden under layers of official deception and deceit. Washington journalists had great difficulty identifying the goals on each side, much less totting up the gains and the losses. In the U.S.-Soviet negotiations the administration's positions were rarely what they seemed, and from time to time, the levels of deception went so deep that even the most astute defense experts in Congress failed to penetrate them. At the Reykjavik summit, for example, Reagan and Gorbachev seemed to be gambling with their entire arsenals of nuclear arms.

Meanwhile Gorbachev launched a political revolution in the Soviet Union. Few in Washington understood what he was doing or where he was going, and the Cold War was over long before the American foreign policy establishment knew it.

To study this period is to reflect upon the extent to which our national discourse about foreign and defense policy is not about reality -- or the best intelligence estimates about it -- but instead a matter of domestic politics, history and mythology.

Copyright © 2000 by Frances FitzGerald

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Table of Contents


Contents

AUTHOR'S NOTE

ONE The American Everyman

TWO The Making of an Orator

THREE Doubling the Volume

FOUR Space Defense Enthusiasts

FIVE To the Star Wars Speech

SIX Selling the Strategic Defense Initiative

SEVEN Hard-Liners vs. Pragmatists

EIGHT What Happened at Reykjavik?

NINE Falling Stars

TEN Reagan and Gorbachev

ELEVEN The End of the Cold War

AFTERWORD National Missile Defenses, 1989-99

GLOSSARY

NOTES

BIBLIOGRAPHY

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

INDEX

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First Chapter

Chapter One: The American
Everyman

On March 23, 1983, President Reagan announced that after consultations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff he had decided to embark on a long-range research-and-development effort to counter the threat of Soviet ballistic missiles and to make these nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." The announcement, made in an insert into a routine defense speech, came as a surprise to everyone in Washington except for a handful of White House aides. The insert had not been cleared with the Pentagon, and although Reagan was proposing to overturn the doctrine which had ruled U.S. nuclear strategy for more than three decades, the secretary of defense and the secretary of state were informed only a day or so before the speech was broadcast.

In background briefings White House aides explained that the research effort would be directed towards producing space-borne laser and particle-beam weapons with the potential to provide a reliable defense for the entire United States. Most of the scientists and defense experts invited to the White House for dinner that evening expressed incredulity: the technologies were so futuristic they would not be ready for decades, if then, and the cost of an all-out development effort would be staggering. Some further objected that any effort to develop an anti-ballistic missile capability would lead to a new and more dangerous form of arms race with the Soviet Union.

Reagan's proposal was so vague and so speculative that it was not taken altogether seriously at the time. Press attention soon shifted away from it and did not fully return until March 1985, when the administration launched the Strategic Defense Initiative with fanfare and asked the Congress to appropriate twenty-six billion dollars for it over the next five years.

At this point the debate over anti-missile defenses began in earnest, and journalists for the first time inquired about the origins of the proposal that Reagan had made so abruptly two years before. The President maintained that the idea was his to begin with, but said nothing more about it. However, Martin Anderson, an economist at the Hoover Institution and a former Reagan aide for domestic policy, told journalists that the idea had first come to Reagan during a visit to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) that he had made at the beginning of his presidential campaign in July 1979. In his book Revolution, published in 1988, Anderson described that visit at some length. His account subsequently became embedded in the history of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Journalists, academics and official SDI historians have all quoted it in more or less detail -- and small wonder, for it is a marvelous story. To paraphrase Anderson's text, it is this:

On July 31, 1979, Anderson accompanied Reagan from Los Angeles to the NORAD base in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. The visit had been arranged by a Hollywood screenwriter and producer, Douglas Morrow, whom Reagan had known for some years, and Morrow came along on the trip. NORAD, Anderson explains, "is the nerve center of a far-flung, world-wide network of radar detectors that alerts us to any surprise attack." Its computers, he writes, would track a Soviet missile from its launch pad and give the President the facts he would have to rely on in deciding whether to launch a retaliatory strike. As for the command post, it is "a vast underground city, a multi-level maze of rooms and corridors carved deep into the solid granite core of Cheyenne Mountain," with "a massive steel door several feet thick." Once inside these portals, the visitors spent most of the day in a series of windowless conference rooms listening to briefings on the nuclear capabilities of the U.S. and the Soviet Union and on the means for detecting a nuclear attack. Towards the end of the day they were ushered into the command center, "a very large room several stories high," which looked "just like such command centers do in the movies." A huge display screen with an outline map of the United States covered one end of the room, and in front of it, facing video display screens with dozens of switches and lights, were "the young men and women who constantly monitor these displays for the first sign of a nuclear attack." Later the visitors talked with the base commander, General James Hill, and the discussion turned to the issue of what could be done if the Soviets fired just one missile at an American city. Hill replied that they could track the missile but that nothing could be done to stop it.

On the flight home to Los Angeles, Reagan, according to Anderson, seemed deeply concerned about what he had heard. "He couldn't believe the United States had no defense against Soviet missiles. He slowly shook his head and said, 'We have spent all that money and have all that equipment, and there is nothing we can do to prevent a nuclear missile from hitting us.'" Towards the end of the flight he reflected on the terrible dilemma that would face a U.S. president if, for whatever reason, nuclear missiles were fired at the United States and concluded, "We should have some way of defending ourselves against nuclear missiles."

Anderson then reminded Reagan of "the ABM debate that occurred early in President Nixon's first term of office, of how we pursued the idea of missile defense and then, inexplicably, abandoned it." He suggested that they look at "what technological advances had developed" and reexamine the idea. Reagan agreed, and a few days later Anderson, with the permission of the campaign manager, John Sears, wrote a memo on the broad issues of defense and foreign policy. In it he included a section proposing the development of a "protective missile system," arguing that "the idea is probably fundamentally far more appealing to the American people than the questionable satisfaction of knowing that those who initiated an attack against us were also blown away," and that "there have apparently been striking advances in missile technology during the past decade or so that would make such a system technically possible."

According to Anderson, Reagan embraced the idea wholeheartedly, and so did a number of his key campaign advisers. However, Reagan's political advisers vetoed the proposal on the grounds that "there was no way Reagan could discuss radical changes in traditional nuclear weapons policy without leaving himself wide open to demagogic attacks from his Democratic opponent." The idea was then shelved, but, as Anderson tells us, only temporarily.

This story of Reagan's epiphany on Cheyenne Mountain is perfectly good history: General James Hill has confirmed the basic facts, and Reagan himself referred to his NORAD visit in an interview six months later when talking about the need for a defense against nuclear missiles. At the same time it must be regarded as something more than history. There is, after all, a high narrative gloss to the story, and in confirming it General Hill suggested that it had been somewhat dramatized. Though life may well have been imitating art, the story sounds very much like the allegorical stories Reagan habitually told to illustrate the meaning and moral of an action. Because it first appeared in public long after Reagan's 1983 speech, it has always been understood in light of that speech, and as a reflection upon his exhortation to the scientific community to make "nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." In a sense it is a myth of origins.

Of course, looked at in a certain way, the story is pure comedy. To read it literally, Reagan did not understand that the U.S. relied on deterrence until eighteen months before becoming President of the United States. Taken to NORAD by a Hollywood screenwriter, he discovered to his amazement that ballistic missiles could not be stopped in mid-flight. While in the grip of this revelation, he was told by an economist from the Hoover Institution -- and one of the architects of Reaganomics -- that there might be a way to stop them. Then the economist, who apparently did not know why Nixon and his successors failed to pursue the idea of missile defenses, went off and wrote a memo proposing that the candidate call for a change in the entire strategic posture of the United States. Reagan was thrilled, and had it not been for his political advisers, he might have gone along with the idea -- and possibly lost the election.

Though the story would seem to show that a supply-side economist was the brains behind SDI, there is another possible author of SDI in the story: the Hollywood screenwriter, whom Anderson inexplicably abandons as a character early on in the narrative. Could the screenwriter have orchestrated the whole drama of Reagan's conversion and suggested the solution without Anderson's actually knowing it? Doubtless not. All the same, his presence in the narrative, and Anderson's observation that the NORAD command center looked like a movie set, seemed to lend credence to the theory held by a number of journalists and academics that Reagan took his missile-defense idea from a science-fiction film.

When Reagan announced his initiative in March 1983, the project was immediately dubbed "Star Wars" in the press. The title was a reflection not merely on the improbability of making nuclear missiles "impotent and obsolete," but on the fact that Reagan in a speech just two weeks before had spoken of the Soviet Union as "the evil empire," and commentators were still joking about "the Darth Vader speech." Yet those who later maintained that Reagan took his inspiration for SDI from the movies were not joking at all.

In the mid-eighties Dr. Michael Rogin, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, published a series of scholarly papers making a case that Reagan's thinking was profoundly influenced by the movies he had starred in. The thesis seemed plausible to journalists covering Reagan, for by then many of them had noticed that Reagan took some of his best material from the screen. For one thing, he had a habit of quoting lines from the movies without attribution. For example, his famous retort to George Bush during the primary debate in Nashua, New Hampshire, "I'm paying for this microphone," came from a film called State of the Union. For another thing, he sometimes described movie scenes as if they had happened in real life. Speaking to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in December 1983, he told a World War II story of a B-17 captain whose plane had been hit and who was unable to drag his wounded young ball-turret gunner out of the turret; instead of parachuting to safety with the rest of the crew, the captain took the frightened boy's hand and said, "Never mind, son, we'll ride it down together." Reagan concluded by telling the society that the captain had been posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. But no such person existed: the story came from the 1946 movie A Wing and a Prayer. Within a month of this event Reagan told the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that the roots of his concern for Israel could be traced back to World War II, when he, as a Signal Corps photographer, had filmed the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Reagan, however, did not leave California during World War II; he had apparently seen a documentary about the camps.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2000

    AWESOME

    This is the best book, on this subject, I have ever read. It told stories that 'Dutch' didn't tell us. Dutch was very lame. This was awesome.

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    Posted May 11, 2013

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