Way Out There in the Blue by Frances FitzGerald
Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War
by Frances FitzGerald
Simon & Schuster. 592 pp. $30.00
In 1998, North Korea took the world by surprise when it lobbed a three-stage missile—the Taepo Dong 1—into the airspace over Japan. If properly reconfigured, this device might be able to hit portions of the western and central United States. The North Koreans have also fielded but not yet tested a much larger and more formidable missile, the Taepo Dong 2, capable of hitting every major city in the United States with—if Pyongyang manages to obtain one—a nuclear weapon.
Driven in part by the emerging North Korean threat, but also by the progress made by such countries as Iran and Iraq in acquiring long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction, the Clinton administration has executed what the New York Times called an “abrupt about-face” and begun to take an interest in missile defense—after years of cutting expenditures on research and development and placing roadblocks in the way of existing projects. This coming October, President Clinton is scheduled to decide whether to deploy a system of National Missile Defense (NMD) consisting of 100 long-range interceptors based in Alaska.
A good many liberals are convinced that NMD constitutes a betrayal of the administration’s longstanding commitment to a linchpin arms-control accord, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile pact, for the sake of a technology that is strategically destabilizing, far from proven, and very costly. Conservatives, for their part, noting that NMD is the least effective of the missile-defense systems in the Pentagon pipeline, harbor suspicions that Clinton is planning to perform one of his triangulations, pushing forward a scheme that only minimally enhances U.S. security while providing election-year political cover to the presidential candidacy of Al Gore.
Whatever one’s view of the matter, it is at least remarkable that the U.S. is now ready, or close to being ready, to deploy a system capable of knocking incoming warheads out of the sky. Much of the credit for this fact belongs to a single man: Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who, nearly two decades ago, pushed the U.S. into the modern missile-defense era when he launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This was no small feat, accomplished with no little expenditure of political capital. It was, in fact, one of the defining acts of the Reagan presidency.
For an understanding of how all this came to pass, we are—perversely—indebted to Frances FitzGerald, a left-wing journalist who contributes frequently to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and who established her name at the height of the Vietnam war with Fire in the Lake (1972), a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that celebrated the Communist Vietcong. In many ways, if not in most ways, Way Out There in the Blue is an atrocious book And yet, as a history of U.S. missile-defense programs over the past two decades, it is also rather informative, if not always about its ostensible subject.
FitzGerald begins by reconstructing the origins of SDI in close detail, usefully dismantling some myths along the way. Thus, some of Reagan’s former aides have erroneously traced his passion for missile defense to a pre-presidential briefing he received in 1979 at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). According to the President’s former domestic-policy adviser Martin Anderson, for example, Reagan came away from his visit to NORAD deeply shocked:
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. . . . We should have some way of defending ourselves against nuclear missiles.”
But as FitzGerald shows, Reagan was by no means as unlettered in nuclear affairs as this suggests. He was well aware that the United States lacked missile defenses and relied solely on the threat of massive retaliation for its security. In fact, this deplorable state of affairs had been a consistent theme of his speeches over the preceding years. Throughout the latter half of the 70’s, too, Reagan had been closely associated with the Committee on the Present Danger, a group of foreign-policy thinkers who were elaborating various U.S. responses to the Soviet military buildup.
Reagan’s preoccupation with missile defense during his first years in the White House was thus anything but a lark. And to anyone who had been closely following his career, it should not have come as a surprise that from the very start he brought into his administration experts who favored pushing the idea along. No sooner was it sufficiently developed than he went on television on March 23, 1983, and called for a technological shield to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.”
This speech did not play well, to say the least; critics were legion, both within the government and without. The Chicago Sun Times called Reagan’s proposal “an appalling disservice.” To the New York Times, SDI was “a pipe dream, a projection of fantasy into policy.” “Never in my wildest dreams,” declared Congressman Ted Weiss of New York, “could I ever imagine our President taking to the national airwaves to promote a strategy of futuristic ‘Star Wars’ schemes as Mr. Reagan did last night.” And even at the Pentagon itself, officials were, in FitzGerald’s words, “appalled”:
The Joint Chiefs were stunned by the precipitous action and the sweeping language. The chief technical experts in the Pentagon were furious. According to witnesses, Richard DeLauer, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, “went ballistic” and asked how nuclear policy could be the subject of such a “half-baked political travesty.”
Still, despite fierce opposition from various highly vocal quarters, the idea of putting a “roof” over the country to defend it from missile attack seemed attractive to broad segments of the public. One mid-decade poll cited by FitzGerald showed 73 percent of the American people in favor of pressing ahead. With such numbers behind him, Reagan managed to sell the program to Congress. It soon became one of the largest U.S. military research programs of all time.
Abroad, as FitzGerald recounts, SDI also delivered a powerful and not wholly anticipated jolt to the USSR. With the Soviet economy stretched to the limit by the existing burden of defense spending, the USSR’s rulers understood that their country could not compete in an entirely new arena, particularly one that demanded the high technology in which they were falling ever further behind.
And so a prime new objective was quickly added to traditional Soviet diplomatic goals: stopping the U.S. from deploying a missile defense. At the Reykjavik summit of 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, relates FitzGerald, “offered a series of breathtaking concessions . . . in order to get Reagan to confine SDI ‘to the laboratory.’ ” To no avail. Reagan held fast and the negotiations fell apart. In short order, so did the USSR. Undergoing various transformations and name changes, SDI lived on, and lives on:
It survived declining defense budgets. It survived a fall-off of public interest so complete that many consistent newspaper readers thought the program had died. It survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. It survived despite the fact that there was no technological breakthrough, and that by 1999 the prospects for deploying an effective interceptor remained not very much brighter than they had been in 1983.
I am well aware that the plot summary I have just offered may make Way Out There in the Blue seem reasonable enough—perhaps even admirable. Yet I set out by calling it atrocious. What have I left out of my account?
For one thing, this book is a model of tendentious writing. Though my own rendition of FitzGerald’s history confines itself to the facts, she operates under no such inhibition, freely strewing her narrative with tokens of her supercilious contempt for Ronald Reagan and all his works. Throughout Way Out There in the Blue, indeed, anyone who favors missile defense is depicted as a warmonger, extremist, or crank. Reagan’s defense experts, she writes, hurling tar, were drawn from the “fringes of their profession”; they consisted of “a solid phalanx of hardliners” and “diehard right-wingers”; they were “far to the Right of any administration past,” making it no surprise that they “managed to create the worst period of friction in U.S.-Soviet relations since the Cuban missile crisis.”
As for Ronald Reagan himself, he was a man steeped in the “paranoid style” of American politics, a style never more in evidence than when he called the USSR an “evil empire.” He came to believe in the “science-fiction” solution he had proposed to America’s military problems not because of a briefing at NORAD, and not through his association with the Committee on the Present Danger, but because of a disturbing inability to distinguish in his own mind between Hollywood movies and the concrete realities of the physical world. Given his lifelong habit of “describ[ing] movie scenes as if they had happened in real life,” it is no wonder that historians can point to films like Murder in the Air (1944) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) as “possible sources of Reagan’s inspiration.”
Reagan’s intellectual deficiencies lead FitzGerald to what she characterizes as the deep conundrum of his presidency: how such a person could have come to “persuade the country of something that did not, and could not for the foreseeable future, exist.” Indeed, solving this conundrum is the central purpose of her book—a purpose she finally accomplishes to her own satisfaction. The American people, she reports, were themselves primed to embrace SDI by the same irresistible force that had shaped the mind of their President: Hollywood.
Throughout his career, it seems, Reagan had presented himself as a “citizen-politician” very much akin to the hero of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the 1939 Frank Capra film that occupies an almost mythic status in the popular American imagination. Though missile defense was, in FitzGerald’s words, “nothing more than a story,” so well did Reagan exemplify Capra’s hero—“he played Mr. Smith rather better than a real Mr. Smith might have played himself”—that both Democrats and Republicans clasped hands to support him. In the final analysis, SDI was “Reagan’s greatest triumph as an actor-storyteller.”
An intriguing theory, surely, and one that requires very little in the way of evidence to make it credible. All one need believe is, first, that the American people are impressionable dolts, and second, that the USSR’s accumulating military potential over the 70’s and 80’s was a matter of no special significance; that Moscow was acquiring tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and mounting them on missiles pointed at the United States for no discernible purpose; and that SDI, being a technological hoax, could have had no possible bearing on the military balance between the rival superpowers.
The first requirement is easy enough for FitzGerald to meet. What else, she sneers, could one expect of “solid middle-class citizens” who dream of getting something for nothing, who buy junk bonds, and who prefer “to visit theme parks rather than real places” than that they would fall for a scheme like Star Wars? But the second requirement presents a problem even to FitzGerald’s formidable powers of discernment: how can she account for the fact that Gorbachev and company came to be so worried by a hugely expensive and unworkable system that they would make “breathtaking concessions” to stop it? After all, the masters of the Kremlin were not, presumably, under the sway of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Troubled by this question, FitzGerald admits that “it is not easy to explain.” In the end, she gamely concludes it was not Hollywood that influenced Moscow but an even more ethereal force: “there was some element of magical thinking involved.”
True enough, in her own head. For what—to say it again—Way Out There in the Blue makes unwittingly but unmistakably clear is that the prospect of even a partially effective American system of defense against the Soviets’ formidable arsenal of offensive nuclear weapons did indeed have a profound and salubrious impact on the concluding phase of the cold war. By the same token, the technological revolution set in motion by the Reagan administration could have an equally profound impact today in the face of a menace that is already beginning to endanger our major cities and to threaten the national existence of several of our allies. If the United States does actually manage to secure the skies from attack by rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction, it will be thanks in no small part to what Frances FitzGerald calls Ronald Reagan’s “absurd” idea.
All of which, in short, makes Way Out There in the Blue not only one of the most splenetic but one of the most frivolous pieces of analysis to appear under the imprimatur of a major publishing house in recent years.