Primary Sources

President Reagan Proposes a Missile Defense System


Since 1949, when the Soviet Union first successfully tested an atom bomb, the national security policies of both the US and the Soviets derived from a doctrine of deterrence rather than one of defense against attack. By deploying enough weapons to insure the destruction of the country that launched a nuclear strike, the Cold War rivals adopted a policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) to inhibit such attacks. President Ronald Reagan thought that the nuclear arms race that had resulted from MAD could lead to the battle of Armageddon prophesied in the Christian Bible that would destroy the world. Reagan nevertheless increased military expenditures massively during his first two years in office, prompting in response the growth of a popular nuclear freeze movement and successful efforts by Congress during a recession to cut back on defense spending. In the following speech advocating the passage of an increased defense budget, Reagan attached a “surprise ending”—a call for the missile defense system, soon to become known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars,” that, he believed, would liberate the US from depending on any other country's adherence to MAD. Although SDI was criticized as unrealizable, Reagan eventually sold his “dream” to Congress and much of the American public, thereby dissuading many from supporting the nuclear freeze movement. The US spent more than $60 billion on SDI by the end of the century—the most costly governmental research project in US history—even though no operable system came of it. The effort dominated strategic arms talks throughout the 1980s.


Ronald Reagan, "Address to the Nation on Defense and National Security," speech, The White House, Washington, D.C., March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public Papers, Reagan Library (accessed April 3, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt

My fellow Americans, thank you for sharing your time with me tonight. The subject I want to discuss with you, peace and national security, is both timely and important. Timely, because I've reached a decision which offers a new hope for our children in the 21st century....

We and our allies have succeeded in preventing nuclear war for more than three decades. In recent months, however, my advisers, including in particular the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have underscored the necessity to break out of a future that relies solely on offensive retaliation for our security.... Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today. What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?...

I clearly recognize that defensive systems have limitations and raise certain problems and ambiguities. If paired with offensive systems, they can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy, and no one wants that. But with these considerations firmly in mind, I call upon the scientific community in our country, those 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. Tonight, consistent with our obligations of the ABM treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies, I'm taking an important first step. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles. This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves. We seek neither military superiority nor political advantage. Our only purpose—one all people share—is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war. My fellow Americans, tonight we're launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history.

How to Cite this Source

President Ronald Reagan, "President Reagan Proposes a Missile Defense System," Making the History of 1989, Item #59, (accessed May 28 2021, 3:26 pm).

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