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

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

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by Frances FitzGerald

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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…  See more details below


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Alan Brinkley The New York Times Book Review Clearly, eloquently and engagingly [told]...One of the best inner histories of the Reagan administration yet to appear.

David M. Shribman The Boston Globe One of the most imaginative chronicles of Ronald Reagan's presidency.

James Hershberg Chicago Tribune A devastating picture of the disarray, drift and acrimonious division that frequently characterized the administration...A significant contribution to the simmering argument...over the meaning and conduct of his presidency.

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.\
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
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

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Simon & Schuster
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6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.31(d)

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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's success 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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Way Out There In the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Brandon Jones More than 1 year ago
This book explains why the Cold War was a race to see who could build things faster and better