Military history

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On July 31, 1979, Ronald Reagan walked through a pair of twenty-five-ton blast doors at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command. Behind the doors were four and a half acres of chambers and tunnels surrounded by granite two thousand feet thick to shield it from an atomic bomb. Constructed of carbon steel plates, the fifteen buildings inside rested on 1,319 giant springs, each weighing approximately one thousand pounds, to cushion against shock. Built in the early 1960s, the complex was the nerve center of a system of satellites and radar for monitoring against a nuclear attack.1

Reagan, who sought the Republican nomination in 1976 but lost to Gerald Ford, was preparing to run for president again. He had flown from Los Angeles for briefings about nuclear weapons. Martin Anderson, a policy adviser to the campaign, accompanied Reagan that day, along with Douglas Morrow, a screenwriter and producer who had known Reagan in his Hollywood days and suggested that Reagan see the facility.2 From the outside of the mountain, at the North Portal, entering a one-third-mile-long tunnel, Anderson recalled they didn’t think the complex looked very impressive. But once deep inside the mountain, standing in front of the huge blast doors, they began to sense the enormous scope. They were given briefings on the relative nuclear capabilities of the United States and the Soviet Union, and shown the command center, a room with a giant electronic map of North America. Anderson asked Air Force General James Hill, the commander, what would happen if a Soviet SS-18 missile were to hit within a few hundred yards of the command center. The Soviets had already deployed the SS-18 and an upgraded version was in flight tests. “It would blow us away,” Hill replied. When he heard this, “a look of disbelief came over Reagan’s face,” Anderson recalled. “The discussion continued, and we pressed the issue of what would really happen if the Soviets were to fire just one nuclear missile at a U.S. city.”

Hill replied that “we would pick it up right after it was launched, but by the time the officials of the city could be alerted that a nuclear bomb would hit them, there would be only ten or fifteen minutes left. That’s all we can do. We can’t stop it.”

On the flight back to Los Angeles, Reagan was deeply concerned. “He couldn’t believe the United States had no defense against Soviet missiles,” Anderson recalled. Reagan 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.” At the end of the flight, Reagan reflected on the dilemma that might confront a U.S. president if faced with a nuclear attack. “The only options he would have,” Reagan said, “would be to press the button or do nothing. They’re both bad. We should have some way of defending ourselves against nuclear missiles.”3

Reagan was a staunch anti-Communist and defense hard-liner. In the summer of 1979 he was speaking out in his syndicated radio address against the new SALT II treaty, saying it favored the Soviet Union.4 But on the threshold of a new campaign, his advisers felt there was a real chance that Reagan would frighten voters if he spoke openly about nuclear weapons and war. This risk was acknowledged in a memorandum that Anderson wrote in early August, a few weeks after Cheyenne Mountain. At this point, Reagan’s campaign had several part-time defense and foreign policy experts, but the only permanent policy adviser was Anderson, a conservative economist on leave from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Anderson had earlier written memos on the economy and energy. In the ten-page Policy Memorandum No. 3, “Foreign Policy and National Security,” he grappled with a way for Reagan to talk about nuclear strategy without alarming voters.

Anderson acknowledged that Reagan’s strong views on national defense were regarded as a political liability, that people worried he was somewhat inexperienced and might plunge the country into “Vietnamlike wars” abroad. But, Anderson added, “The situation has now changed significantly.” The reason was that growing Soviet military power “has been increasingly perceived as a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States.” Anderson cautioned that Reagan could not tackle this theme directly. He had to find a way to take advantage of the mood without frightening voters with an “overly aggressive stance that would be counterproductive.”

Under the heading “National Defense,” Anderson sketched out three options for the campaign. One would be to continue the course the United States was on, relying on SALT II, and “try to appease and ingratiate ourselves with the Soviets.” Anderson dismissed this as “dangerous folly.” Another option would be for Reagan to argue the United States must “match the Soviet buildup,” sharply increasingly defense spending. But this has “serious problems,” he acknowledged, because it could alienate voters. “Substantial increases in the attack missile capability of the United States would be a powerful, emotional issue to deal with politically—especially by Reagan,” he cautioned. Then Anderson offered a third way, suggesting Reagan propose development of what he called a “Protective Missile System.” Anderson acknowledged missile defenses were outlawed by the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, but “perhaps it is now time to reconsider the concept.” Anderson argued that missile defense would be “far more appealing to the American people” than just nuclear retaliation and revenge.5

Despite the recommendation of Policy Memorandum No. 3, in the campaign that unfolded in the next fifteen months, Reagan did not talk about missile defense. The subject was just too delicate. A statement on the topic was put into the Republican Party platform, but it was not part of Reagan’s campaign stump speech nor did it figure in his major campaign addresses on foreign policy.

Nonetheless, Reagan held radical notions about nuclear weapons: he dreamed of abolishing them. Personally, he recoiled from the concept of mutual assured destruction, or MAD.6 Reagan also intensely disliked the idea that he, as president, would have to make decisions about nuclear weapons in the event of a sudden crisis. He worried that a nuclear explosion would lead to the end of the Earth and expressed belief in the biblical story of Armageddon. “I swear I believe Armageddon is near,” he wrote in his diary on the day Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.7In his desk drawer, Reagan kept a collection of 3 × 5 cards. One carried a quotation from President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” address to the United Nations in 1953, in which Eisenhower pledged the United States would help solve “the fearful atomic dilemma—to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”8

Alongside these views, other powerful convictions and experiences guided Reagan’s thinking. In his 1940 movie Murder in the Air, he starred as Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft, who stops a spy and saves a top-secret death-ray invention that can shoot down airplanes.9 It was fantasy, but Reagan put great faith in the power of American technology to solve problems, going back to his many years selling General Electric with the slogan “Progress is our most important product.” Reagan also distrusted treaties with the Soviet Union, influenced by a book written by a friend, Laurence W. Beilenson, a lawyer and founder of the Screen Actors Guild. The book argued that nations follow treaties only as long as it is in their interest to do so.10 From his experience in the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan was confident in his personal skills as a negotiator—a belief that if he could appeal to the human side of Soviet leaders, he could persuade them.

All these ideas lived in peaceful coexistence in Reagan’s mind. He had a remarkable ability to hold many differing notions at the same time, deploying them as needed and concealing them if required. The stereotype of Reagan as a rigid ideologue does not explain these twists and turns, this untroubled shifting of gears, so central to his character. In 1980, he waged a campaign for the presidency on the grounds that the nation needed a large military expansion, including modernization of missiles, bombers and submarines that carried nuclear weapons. But he kept silent about his own notions that nuclear weapons should be abolished. The Great Communicator did not communicate his dreams about a world without the atomic bomb. His campaign advisers weren’t sure what to make of it when Reagan talked privately about abolishing nuclear weapons. “Nobody on the campaign staff raised any serious objections to his idea of reducing the stockpiles of nuclear weapons,” Anderson recalled, “but on the other hand, and it’s difficult as a former campaign staffer to admit this, nobody believed there was the slightest possibility it could ever happen. And when Reagan began to talk privately of a dream he had when someday we might live in a world free of all nuclear missiles, well, we just smiled.”

For reasons of political tactics, Reagan in 1980 kept his focus on two topics that could be raised in campaign speeches without as much political risk: opposing the SALT II treaty and warning that the Soviets were driving toward military superiority.11 He voiced the alarms of Nitze, Wohlstetter, Pipes and others that the Soviets were posing a “window of vulnerability” for the United States. In a foreign policy address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on August 18, 1980, in Chicago, Reagan quoted approvingly Nitze’s remark that Kremlin leaders “do not want war; they want the world.” Reagan added, “For that reason, they have put much of their military effort into strategic nuclear programs. Here the balance has been moving against us and will continue to do so if we follow the course set by this administration. The Soviets want peace and victory. We must understand this and what it means to us. They seek a superiority in military strength that, in the event of a confrontation, would leave us with an unacceptable choice between submission or conflict.”12

With his silky voice, slightly cocked head, crinkly smile, old-fashioned suits and gauzy nostalgia for an era of American leadership in the 1950s, Reagan projected a sense of purpose and unbridled optimism, and he conveyed it at a time of troubling doubts for Americans. On November 4, 1979, nine days before Reagan formally announced his candidacy for president, Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took Americans hostage. In December, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Voters were fatigued from Vietnam, Watergate, high inflation and energy shortages. From President Carter they had heard about the need for sacrifice and discipline; Reagan, by contrast, offered them a sky-is-the-limit vision that days of plenty could be returned to American life.13

This optimism also ran through Reagan’s ambitions for competition with the Soviet Union. He believed that communism and socialism would ultimately give way to a victory of the American way. While others saw the Soviet Union as an unfortunate yet permanent bastion of global power, Reagan envisioned relentless competition aimed at overturning the status quo. “The great dynamic success of capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism—money,” Reagan later recalled. “The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever.”14 He declared in his 1980 campaign speech that he wanted to “show by example the greatness of our system and the strength of American ideals.” He added,

The truth is we would like nothing better than to see the Russian people living in freedom and dignity instead of being trapped in a backwash of history as they are. The greatest fallacy of the Lenin-Marxist philosophy is that it is the “wave of the future.” Everything about it is primitive: compulsion in place of free initiative; coercion in place of law; militarism in place of trade; and empire-building in place of self-determination; and luxury for a chosen few at the expense of the many. We have seen nothing like it since the Age of Feudalism.

Reagan’s description of the Soviet system as backward and restrictive was a penetrating insight. But there was also a hidden contradiction in this argument. How could the Soviet Union be threatening militarily while also “primitive” and rotting from within? How could it sustain a global arms race abroad while people stood in lines at home? The answer offered by many at the time was that the Soviet military had first claim on the country’s resources, and therefore the defense sector could fatten itself while the rest of the country suffered. This was true; hypermilitarization of the Soviet state did siphon off a huge portion of the country’s resources. But it was also true that, in many instances, the internal rot sapped military power. The Soviet defense machine was undermined by the very weaknesses Reagan spotted elsewhere in the system. A reckoning was coming for the Soviet Union. And even if he did not see every detail clearly, Reagan seemed to understand the big picture very well: the system as a whole was tottering and vulnerable.

Soviet leaders had not trusted Carter, but they reacted with anger and paranoia to Reagan. At his first press conference as president, Reagan was asked if the Kremlin was still “bent on world domination that might lead to a continuation of the Cold War” or whether “under other circumstances détente is possible.” Reagan responded that détente had been a “one way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims,” and added that Soviet leaders “have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that, and that is moral, not immoral, and we operate on a different set of standards. I think when you do business with them, even at a détente, you keep that in mind.”

In Moscow, the aging leadership wanted most of all to preserve the strategic parity they felt they had achieved in the late 1970s, recalled Anatoly Dobrynin, former ambassador to Washington. “For all their revolutionary rhetoric,” he said, “they hated change….” They wanted some kind of military détente, even if political cooperation was out of the question, but the era of détente was over. Reagan didn’t believe in it. “In retrospect, I realize that it had been quite impossible for me at that moment to imagine anything much worse than Carter,” Dobrynin said. “But it soon became clear that in ideology and propaganda Reagan turned out to be far worse and far more threatening.”15

Nonetheless, the Soviet Union was not at the top of Reagan’s agenda in his first year, which was devoted to driving Congress to approve lower taxes, budget cuts and defense rearmament. Reagan believed that before serious attention could be given to dealing with the Soviets, the United States had to first embark on a demonstrable military buildup. Reagan resumed building the B-1 bomber Carter had canceled, pushed ahead with a new basing mode for a new land-based missile, the MX, and with construction of a new Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile with more accuracy and range. Reagan also secretly approved more aggressive U.S. naval and air maneuvers aimed at the Soviet Union. His CIA director, William Casey, expanded covert actions around the globe aimed at hemming in the Soviets. But Reagan did not rush to advance superpower diplomacy. He did not meet or talk to Soviet leaders.

After surviving an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981, when he was shot by John Hinckley Jr. outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, Reagan began to think about what he could do to end the arms race. “Perhaps having come so close to death made me feel I should do whatever I could in the years God had given me to reduce the threat of nuclear war; perhaps there was a reason I had been spared,” he recalled later. In the first week after leaving the hospital, he took out a yellow legal pad and wrote a personal letter to Brezhnev, by hand. Still in his bathrobe and pajamas, Reagan passed it around to aides at a meeting April 13. The State Department didn’t like it and rewrote it into a stiff message. Reagan didn’t like the rewrite, and in the end, Brezhnev got two letters, one formal and one in Reagan’s hand.16 James A. Baker III, who was Reagan’s chief of staff, recalled that the letter was “Reagan 101: a sermon that basically said the Soviets had it wrong on economics, politics, and international relations, and that the United States had it right. It’s as if the president thought maybe Brezhnev didn’t know this stuff and that if he just heard it, he’d come to his senses.”17 Brezhnev replied in “the standard polemical form, stressing their differences,” without any effort to be personal, recalled Dobrynin. Reagan remembered “an icy reply from Brezhnev.”18

At a private moment at an economic summit in Ottawa on July 19, 1981, French President François Mitterrand gave Reagan some stunning news. The French had recruited a defector in place in Moscow, whom the French had code-named “Farewell,” and he had provided a huge treasure trove of intelligence. Colonel Vladimir Vetrov was an engineer whose job was to evaluate the intelligence collected by the KGB’s technology directorate—Directorate T—responsible for finding and stealing the latest in Western high technology. A special arm of the KGB, known as Line X, carried out the thefts. Motivated to help the West, Vetrov had secretly photographed four thousand KGB documents on the program. After Mitterrand spoke to Reagan, the materials were passed to Vice President George H. W. Bush, and then to the CIA in August.

The dossier “immediately caused a storm,” recalled Thomas C. Reed, a former Pentagon official who later worked on the National Security Council staff under Reagan. “The files were incredibly explicit. They set forth the extent of Soviet penetration into U.S. and other Western laboratories, factories and government agencies.”19

Vetrov revealed the names of more than two hundred Line X officers in ten KGB stations in the West. “Reading the material caused my worst nightmares to come true,” said Gus Weiss, a White House official. “Since 1970, Line X had obtained thousands of documents and sample products in such quantity that it appeared the Soviet military and civilian sectors were in large measure running their research on that of the West, particularly the United States. Our science was supporting their national defense.”20

Rather than roll up the Line X officers and expel them, Reagan approved a secret plan to exploit the Farewell dossier for economic warfare against the Soviet Union. The plan was to secretly feed the Line X officers with technology rigged to self-destruct after a certain interval. The idea came from Weiss, who approached Casey, who took it to Reagan. The CIA worked with American industry to alter products to be slipped to the KGB, matching the KGB’s shopping list. “Contrived computer chips found their way into Soviet military equipment, flawed turbines were installed on a gas pipeline, and defective plans disturbed the output of chemical plants and a tractor factory,” Weiss said. “The Pentagon introduced misleading information pertinent to stealth aircraft, space defense, and tactical aircraft.”

Oil and gas equipment was at the top of the Soviet wish list, and the Soviets needed sophisticated control systems to automate the valves, compressors and storage facilities for a huge new pipeline to Europe. When the pipeline technology could not be purchased in the United States, the KGB shopped it from a Canadian firm. However, tipped by Vetrov, the CIA rigged the software sold from Canada to go haywire after a while, to reset pump speeds and valve settings to create pressures far beyond those acceptable to the pipeline joints and welds. One day, the system exploded. “The result was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space,” Reed recalled. The blast was starting to trigger worried looks in the U.S. government that day, he recalled, when, at the National Security Council, “Gus Weiss came down the hall to tell his fellow NSC staffers not to worry.” The explosion had been one of the first fruits of the Reagan confrontation.

Soviet leaders were jittery. Sometime in 1981 they realized that the United States had been tapping one of their most secret military cables linking naval bases with commanders in the Far East. The tap in the Sea of Okhotsk had been placed by U.S. submarines in an operation code-named Ivy Bells. The Soviets may have been alerted when the U.S.S. Seawolf, a reconnaissance submarine, set down by accident right atop the Soviet cable. Also, in 1980, Ronald Pelton, who had worked at the National Security Agency, began selling information about Ivy Bells to the Soviets for money.21 On learning of the tap, the Soviets sent a scavenger ship and found the super-secret device, pulling it up from the ocean floor. There was no mistaking what it was: one part inside said “Property of the United States Government.”22

In May 1981, Brezhnev denounced Reagan’s policies in a secret address to a major KGB conference in Moscow. An even more dramatic speech was given by Yuri Andropov, chairman of the KGB, who declared that the new U.S. administration was actively preparing for nuclear war. He said there was now the possibility of a nuclear first strike by the United States, and the overriding priority of Soviet spying should be to collect intelligence on the nuclear threat from the United States and NATO. Andropov announced that the KGB and the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, were launching a new program to collect intelligence around the world. It was code-named RYAN, the acronym of Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie—nuclear missile attack. The GRU was responsible for monitoring any Western military preparations for a first strike on the Soviet Union, while the KGB’s task was to look for advance warning of an attack decision by the United States and its NATO allies. The first instructions went out to KGB residencies in November 1981.23

When he was president, Reagan carried no wallet, no money, no driver’s license, “no keys in my pockets—only secret codes that were capable of bringing about the annihilation of much of the world as we knew it,” he said in his memoir. He carried a small, plastic-coated card in his coat which “listed the codes I would issue to the Pentagon confirming that it was actually the president of the United States who was ordering the unleashing of our nuclear weapons.” In an emergency, Reagan would have to choose options for responding to nuclear attack. “But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis,” he said. “The Russians sometimes kept submarines off our East Coast with nuclear missiles that could turn the White House into a pile of radioactive rubble within six or eight minutes. Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to release Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?”

In early 1982, Reagan got a closer and more disturbing look at the options. His national security adviser in the first year, Richard Allen, had resigned, and Reagan turned to a trusted friend, William P. Clark, who had been his executive secretary in Sacramento and later a California Supreme Court justice. Reagan and Clark shared a love of horseback riding through the California hills. At the White House, Clark cut an imposing figure, in dark suits and expensive, hand-tooled black cowboy boots. Clark had served as deputy secretary of state in 1981, but otherwise had little national security experience. Most importantly, he enjoyed Reagan’s confidence and shared the president’s political and social conservatism, and his strong anti-communism.

When he became national security adviser, Clark brought Thomas C. Reed into the White House with him. Reed once designed nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. He served in Reagan’s gubernatorial offices during the first term in Sacramento, and ran Reagan’s 1970 reelection campaign. Reed also had experience in Washington; in 1973, he was the Pentagon director of telecommunications and command and control systems, where he worked on modernizing the nuclear communications systems. Later, he served as secretary of the air force under President Gerald Ford. He knew well the workings of global military communications linking NORAD and other military bases to the Pentagon war room.

Reed saw a worrisome disconnect when he got to the White House. The network of communications with the president was a jumble of telephones, radios and hideouts dating from Eisenhower. When he examined the system to evacuate the president in the event of a nuclear attack, Reed was further alarmed; nuclear missiles could arrive before the president even got out of the White House in a helicopter. Carter’s directives in 1980 called for upgrades to the system of presidential command and control, and the creation of a steering group. Reed became chairman of the group, but found the Carter directive was mired in the bureaucracy, and the Defense Department was balking at taking any action.24 Reed said, “The system as I found it would have been headless within minutes of an attack.”

This fear of decapitation of the leadership was just one sign of the immense tensions building at the time between Moscow and Washington. With rapid advances in weapons technology, a lightning strike could wipe out either party within minutes. The Americans worried about Soviet submarines carrying nuclear missiles off the East Coast, or surfacing in the Arctic. The Soviets were fearful of American missiles in Europe reaching the Kremlin. In the early summer of 1982, the Pentagon circulated a 125-page, five-year defense plan that called on U.S. forces to be ready to fight a protracted nuclear war, and to decapitate the Soviet leadership. The document asserted that American forces must be able to “render ineffective the total Soviet (and Soviet-allied) military and political power structure.”25

The Soviets were especially worried about the Pershing II mediumrange missiles that the North Atlantic alliance was preparing to deploy in West Germany in 1983. The Kremlin feared these missiles had the range to reach Moscow, although the United States said they could not go that far.

In February 1982, Reed learned that a regular high-level nuclear weapons exercise was planned for the coming weeks. The purpose was to test the ability of the National Military Command Center, the war room at the Pentagon that would receive first word from Cheyenne Mountain of a nuclear attack, to support the president and secretary of defense in a crisis. Reed seized on the exercise as a chance to get Reagan involved, and to force an overhaul of the antiquated system. On February 27, Reed, Clark and a few other White House staffers explained the basics to Reagan—how he would get information in a crisis, how he would be protected personally and how he would send messages out to the forces. “We described the ways in which the start of nuclear hostilities might appear,” Reed recalled, “the times available for response, and the forces at his disposal.”

The formal exercise, code-named Ivy League, began on Monday March 1, 1982, in the White House Situation Room.26 Former Secretary of State William P. Rogers played the role of president. The reason for a stand-in was to make sure the real president didn’t tip his hand, revealing how he might react in an actual crisis. The exercise started with a threat briefing. Reed recalled, “An intelligence officer laid out the Soviet order of battle, then the warning systems began to report simulated missile launches and impact predictions. The minutes flew by until a screen in that cramped basement room began to show red dots on a map of the U.S.-simulated impacts. The first ones annihilated Washington, so this briefing was assumed to be taking place in some airborne command post over the central plains.”

“Before the President could sip his coffee, the map was a sea of red,” Reed said. “All the urban centers and military installations in the U.S. were gone. And then, while he looked on in stunned disbelief, he learned that the Soviet air force and the second round of missile launches were on their way in. For the next half hour more red dots wiped out the survivors and filled in the few holes in the sea of red.”

Rogers sat at the head of the table, and Reagan sat next to him. Rogers went through the plan, asking questions about how to respond, what options were available and how much time. Reagan was gripping his coffee mug, surprised at the suddenness of the destruction.27 “In less than an hour President Reagan had seen the United States of America disappear,” Reed recalled, adding: “I have no doubt that on that Monday in March, Ronald Reagan came to understand exactly what a Soviet nuclear attack on the U.S. would be like.”

That evening, Reagan and his advisers and several senior Pentagon officials gathered once again in the Situation Room. This time, there was no stand-in president. Reagan was given a full and careful briefing on the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the secret nuclear war plan. The briefing was about the precise steps Reagan would have to take. According to Reed, Reagan didn’t know much about it, although he was first briefed on it after the 1980 election. “The SIOP briefing was as scary as the earlier presentation on the Soviet attack,” Reed said. “It made clear to Reagan that with but a nod of his head all the glories of imperial Russia, all the hopes and dreams of the peasants in Ukraine, and all the pioneering settlements in Kazakhstan would vanish. Tens of millions of women and children who had done nothing to harm American citizens would be burned to a crisp.”

At a third meeting, attended only by Clark and Reed, the president rehearsed the procedures by which he would select options from the war plan and insert the authenticator code from the card in his pocket. Then the exercise ended. But, Reed said, “I have no doubt that in Reagan’s mind it was not over at all.” The exercise “was something that really had happened to him. It focused his mind on the need for protection from those red dots.”

In early 1982, Reagan embarked on a radical plan to confront the Soviet Union from within. In the years of Cold War containment, no administration before had tried to exploit the Soviet Union’s internal tensions with a hope of toppling the regime or forcing it into dramatic change.28 On February 5 Reagan ordered a study of U.S. national security objectives and the Cold War, the first of his presidency. Reed, who oversaw the interagency work that went into the study, said Reagan had decided to go beyond the assumptions of the past. Words like détente, containment and mutual assured destruction were “out,” he said, and “the Cold War was no longer to be viewed as some permanent condition, to be accepted with the inevitability of the sun’s rising and setting.”29 At the time, this was an audacious idea. John Lewis Gaddis, the Yale professor and Cold War historian, recalled that when Reagan took office, the Soviet Union seemed an unyielding presence. “It was not at all clear then that the Soviet economy was approaching bankruptcy, that Afghanistan would become Moscow’s Vietnam, that the appearance of a Polish labor union called Solidarity portended the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, or that the U.S.S.R. would disappear in just over a decade,” he said.30

The study led to a top-secret order, National Security Decision Directive 32, which Reed drafted. Titled “U.S. National Security Strategy,” the directive incorporated the long-standing Cold War policy of containment. But the Reagan directive also went further, and raised a new, more ambitious goal: to force the Soviet Union “to bear the brunt of its economic shortcomings, and to encourage long-term liberalizing and nationalist tendencies within the Soviet Union and allied countries.” Reagan wrote in his diary after a briefing on the Soviet economy, “They are in very bad shape and if we can cut off their credit they’ll have to yell ‘Uncle’ or starve.”31

The extreme delicacy of Reagan’s directive was evident in the way Clark handled the paperwork. Reagan took the draft directive home with him to review on the evening of May 4, 1982. On May 5, at 9:30 A.M., in the presence of Reed and Clark, he signed it. But it was so explosive that Clark did not put it into the White House filing and distribution system until May 20. Clark apparently feared there would be interference from others in the cabinet.32

Reagan had struck a confrontational approach to the Soviet Union from the outset of his presidency, from his first words about lying and cheating, to his rearmament program, and with the CIA’s covert actions in Afghanistan and Central America. The new directive accelerated this drive and made it the official policy of the United States.

On May 9, Reagan turned to nuclear arms control in a commencement address at his alma mater, Eureka College, marking the fiftieth anniversary of his own graduation. In one eloquent passage, Reagan talked about the horror of nuclear war and vowed to “ensure that the ultimate nightmare never occurs.” He also used the address to make his first major proposal since taking office for controlling long-range nuclear weapons—including the ballistic missiles that were so fearsome and fast. He called for both the United States and Soviet Union to reduce their ballistic missile warheads to “equal levels, equal ceilings at least a third below the current levels,” and then specified that “no more than half of those warheads be land-based.” These words sounded equitable, but they were not. The Soviets had a much larger share of their warheads on land-based missiles, while the U.S. weapons were predominantly at sea and in the air. Reagan was often ignorant of such details, and nearly a year later, he confessed that he did not realize that the Soviet strategic force was heavily concentrated in land-based missiles. The Eureka speech underscored his passive management style, often more focused on performing than the details of governing.33

Brezhnev wrote back to Reagan that the Eureka College proposal “cannot but cause apprehension and even doubts as to the seriousness of the intentions of the U.S. side.”

While reading Brezhnev’s letter, Reagan jotted down in the margin, “He has to be kidding.”

When Brezhnev complained that Reagan’s proposals were one-sided, cutting deeper into Soviet weapons than American ones, Reagan wrote, “Because they have the most.”

At the bottom of the letter, Reagan added, “He’s a barrel of laughs.”34

Across the United States, the nuclear freeze movement gained ground in 1982, inspired by antinuclear protests in Western Europe. Churches, universities and city councils in the United States were organizing to protest the nuclear arms race. A march from the United Nations to New York’s Central Park on June 12 drew three-quarters of a million people. Jonathan Schell published The Fate of the Earth, a best seller which declared that nuclear weapons threatened human existence and called for their elimination. The American Catholic bishops drafted a Pastoral Letter on War and Peace expressing fear of the nuclear arms race. Reagan went to Europe in early June concerned that he was being depicted “as a shoot from the hip cowboy aching to pull out my nuclear six-shooter and bring on doomsday.” Reagan recalled later that “I wanted to demonstrate that I wasn’t flirting with doomsday.” But he also used the trip to advance his confrontation with Moscow. A few days before departure, he wrote in his diary that he was fed up with those who advised him to go easy on the Soviets, so as not to upset the allies. “I finally said to h–l with it. It’s time to tell them this is our chance to bring the Soviets into the real world and for them to take a stand with us—shut off credit, etc.”35

One of the most secret but daring thrusts by Reagan came on June 7. He met Pope John Paul II for fifty minutes in the Vatican library. Both had survived assassination attempts the previous year. Their talk centered on Poland, the pope’s birthplace, where the Soviet-backed regime had imposed martial law and outlawed the Solidarity movement. The journalist Carl Bernstein reported in 1992 that Reagan and the pope agreed on a plan to support Solidarity underground, smuggling in tons of equipment, including fax machines, printing presses, transmitters, telephones, shortwave radios, video cameras, photocopiers, telex machines, computers and word processors. The goal was to destabilize General Wojciech Jaruzelski, a pointed and direct challenge to the Kremlin.36 The pope’s authorized biographer, George Weigel, recalled that both Reagan and John Paul “believed that Communism was a moral evil, not simply wrongheaded economics. They were both confident of the capacity of free people to meet the Communist challenge. Both were convinced that, in the contest with communism, victory, not mere accommodation, was possible.” Weigel recalled the pope later said the Vatican had maintained a distance from the U.S. covert campaign in Poland, but he confirms the close coordination on intelligence. Weigel quotes the pope saying that while Reagan decided the policy, “My position was that of a pastor, the Bishop of Rome, of one with responsibility for the Gospel, which certainly contains principles of the moral and social order and human rights … The Holy See’s position, even in regard to my homeland, was guided by moral principle.”37

On the day after seeing the pope, Reagan traveled to London for an open declaration of his policy, delivered to the British Parliament. He spoke in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords, calling for a “crusade for freedom.” His speech overflowed with optimism about the demise of totalitarianism and the triumph of individual endeavor over collectivism, and described anew his abhorrence of nuclear war. There was not much applause for these statements at the time. Britain was still fighting in the Falklands, which dominated the headlines, and the speech did not get the attention it deserved as one of the most important Reagan ever delivered.

The boldest part of the address was Reagan’s assertion that Soviet communism would expire. “It may not be easy to see,” Reagan declared, “but I believe we now live at a turning point.

In an ironic sense, Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis—a crisis where the demands of the economic order are colliding directly with those of the political order. But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West, but in the home of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union.

It is the Soviet Union which runs against the tide of history by denying freedom and human dignity to its citizens. It is also in deep economic difficulty. The rate of growth in the Soviet gross national product has been steadily declining since the ’50s and is less than half of what it was then. The dimensions of this failure are astounding: a country which employs one fifth of its population in agriculture is unable to feed its own people … Overcentralized, with little or no incentives, year after year, the Soviet system pours its best resource into the making of instruments of destruction.

Reagan closed the address with a prediction that the “march of freedom and democracy” would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

On a quick visit to Berlin two days later, Reagan drove to Checkpoint Charlie, the drab opening in the Berlin Wall. He stepped out of his limousine, surveying the thirteen-foot-high wall, stretching out in both directions, gray and pockmarked, East German guards looking back at him from their guardhouses. Of the wall, he said, “It’s as ugly as the idea behind it.”38

On June 25, Reagan recruited George Shultz, the chairman of Bechtel, to be his new secretary of state, replacing Al Haig. Shultz had been in Europe and recalled thinking about the state of the world as he flew home for his first meeting with Reagan.

“Relations between the superpowers were not simply bad,” he recalled, “they were virtually non-existent.”39

At the same time, Reed, the National Security Council official, was growing more worried about the lack of a serious plan for the president’s command and control in the event of a nuclear alert. No one wanted to advertise it, but while the United States was spending billions to modernize strategic weapons, the means to command these forces was, in the words of one official, “the weakest link in the chain.”40 Furthermore, Reagan did not want to fly away in a helicopter if America was threatened with nuclear war. “I want to sit here in the office,” he told Reed. Referring to Vice President Bush, the president added, “Getting into the helicopter is George’s job.”

On June 19, 1982, Reed got Reagan’s approval for a new effort.41 The result was a plan that, in the event of attack, would preserve the presidency as an institution, instead of the president himself. On September 14, Reagan signed a top-secret directive, titled “Enduring National Leadership.”42 Instead of running for the helicopter, the president would remain in the Oval Office, ready to make decisions, order retaliation or negotiate, while his potential successors would vanish to distant and safe locations. The overall effort was called “Continuity of Government,” and it became a massive secret government program. Reed said the plan was to give a designated successor “the world’s biggest laptop” from which he could continue to govern if the real president were killed. “You basically say, hmmm, things are getting dicey—vanish. The guy doesn’t go into the basement, he vanishes with a communications set, and a linkage to all the other arms of government so that he can be the president.” As Reed put it, “Our contribution was to survive the presidency, not the president.”

After World War II, large underground installations were built outside of the capital. One was Mount Weather in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, seventy miles from Washington, and another was at Raven Rock Mountain, six miles north of Camp David on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Both could serve as military command posts in the event of war. But the Reagan planners realized that a president might not make it to these bunkers in time. They devised a plan to dispatch three teams from Washington to separate, secure locations around the United States. Each team had to be prepared to proclaim a new American “president” and assume command of the country, according to author James Mann. If the Soviet Union was able to hit one team with a nuclear weapon, the next one would be ready. “This was not some abstract textbook plan, but was practiced in concrete, thorough and elaborate detail,” Mann said. Each time a team left Washington, usually for several days of exercises, it brought one member of Reagan’s cabinet who would serve as the successor “president.” The entire program—intended to be carried out swiftly, under extreme stress and amid the potential chaos of impending nuclear war—was extra-legal and extra-constitutional. It established a process of presidential succession, Mann pointed out, that is nowhere in the Constitution or federal law. A secret agency, the National Program Office, spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year to keep the continuity-of-government program ready.43

On November 11, 1982, Reagan was awakened at 3:30 A.M. with word of Brezhnev’s death in Moscow. Two days later, he visited the Soviet Embassy to pay his respects, and wrote in the book of condolences, “I express my condolences to the family of President Brezhnev and the people of the Soviet Union. May both our peoples live jointly in peace on this planet. Ronald Reagan.” In Moscow, Yuri Andropov was elevated to be Brezhnev’s successor. His first comments reflected the dark mood of the Soviet leadership. “We know very well,” Andropov said, “that peace cannot be obtained from the imperialists by begging for it. It can be upheld only by relying on the invincible might of the Soviet armed forces.”44

When Reagan had warned of a “window of vulnerability” in 1980, the most worrisome threat came from Soviet land-based missiles, especially the new generation, the SS-17, SS-18 and SS-19. By 1982, the Soviet missile force had grown to fourteen hundred launchers carrying over five thousand warheads. The U.S. missile force had 1,047 launchers and about 2,150 warheads.45 The fear was that in a first strike, just a portion of the Soviet force could wipe out nearly all the American missiles still sitting in their silos. Reagan struggled—as had Presidents Ford and Carter—to respond to the Soviet buildup with the development of a new-generation American super weapon, the MX, or Missile Experimental. The 100-ton MX would be three times more accurate than the Minuteman III, and carry ten warheads, each independently targetable. Under the original plan to deploy two hundred MX missiles, the Soviets would face the prospect of two thousand warheads raining down on their silos. That would begin to ease concerns about the window of vulnerability.

But the MX ran into political opposition, especially over complex schemes to base the missile so it would not be vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. Reagan scrapped Carter’s idea of a vast racetrack. Reagan’s administration tried three different ideas, and in 1982 came up with “Dense Pack,” to base 100 MX missiles in super-hardened silos in a strip fourteen miles long and 1.5 miles wide in southwestern Wyoming. The thinking behind Dense Pack was that incoming Soviet missiles would commit “fratricide,” exploding so close to each other as to neutralize the impact and leaving much of the MX force intact. In an effort to build political support, Reagan delivered a nationally televised appeal for the MX missile on November 22, 1982, renaming it “Peacekeeper.” He acknowledged that people had become more fearful that the arms race was out of control. “Americans have become frightened and, let me say, fear of the unknown is entirely understandable,” he said. Despite his appeal, on December 7, the House voted to reject funding for the MX, and the next day the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General John W. Vessey Jr., revealed in Senate testimony that three of the five joint chiefs opposed the Dense Pack basing plan. The MX was in deep trouble, and the political deadlock worried U.S. military leaders.46 The MX was their answer to preserving the land-based leg of the strategic triad, the land-sea-air combination at the backbone of deterrence. That summer, Admiral James D. Watkins, chief of naval operations, had concluded the United States was heading into a dangerous dead end, what he called a “strategic valley of death.”47 Robert Sims, a retired navy captain who was then a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the joint chiefs had concluded “this is probably the last missile this Congress is ever going to go for. They were frustrated. They weren’t certain they would get the MX and they knew they couldn’t get anything after MX. So they said, ‘We’ve got to look beyond MX.’”48

It was in this environment of political deadlock that Reagan began to look over the horizon. What happened next was a blend of old imaginings and fresh pragmatism, animated by Reagan’s faith in American high technology and a touch of science fiction. In the final months of 1982 and then early 1983, Reagan embraced a grand dream: to build a massive globe-straddling shield that would protect populations against ballistic missiles and make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” The missile defense was never constructed. It was nothing more than a ghost invention. But the concept preoccupied and puzzled the Soviet Union for years to come. To understand Reagan, it is important to understand the origins of the dream.

As a boy, Reagan read fiction voraciously, including the science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, among them Princess of Mars, a story with visions of polished domes over cities and impregnable walls. By the time he reached young adulthood, Reagan abhorred warfare. At twenty years old, he wrote a wrenching sketch of combat while at Eureka College in 1931. The piece was titled “Killed in Action” and described a World War I trench battle scene.49 Reagan was appalled at the power of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Appearing before a leftist audience in 1945, he gave a dramatic reading of a poem, “Set Your Clock at U235,” by Norman Corwin, which referred ominously to “skies aboil with interlocking fury.”50

To these ideas, Reagan added a philosophy of anti-communism, which he polished on the speaking circuit in the 1950s and 1960s. In one notable address, he outlined a strategy of pushing the Soviet economic system to collapse. It was the early 1960s, when Khrushchev and Kennedy were in power. Reagan fumed that Kennedy and the “liberal establishment of both parties” have been pursuing “a policy of accommodation with the Soviet Union.”

“The theory goes something like this,” Reagan said. “As time goes on the men in the Kremlin will come to realize that dogmatic communism is wrong. The Russian people will want a chicken in every pot, and decide some features of decadent capitalism make for more plentiful poultry, while their system hasn’t even provided a pot. By a strange paradox us decadent capitalists will have discovered in the meantime that we can do without a few freedoms in order to enjoy government by an intellectual elite which obviously knows what is best for us. Then on some future happy day Ivan looks at Joe Yank, Joe looks at Ivan, we make bridge lamps out of all those old rockets, and discover the cold war just up and went away …”

Reagan said disdainfully: “Our foreign policy today is motivated by fear of the bomb, and is based on pure conjecture that maybe communism will mellow and recognize that our way is better.” He wanted permanent competition with the Soviets, not “appeasement” and “accommodation.”

“If we truly believe that our way of life is best aren’t the Russians more likely to recognize that fact and modify their stand if we let their economy come unhinged so that contrast is apparent?” Reagan said. “Inhuman though it may sound, shouldn’t we throw the whole burden of feeding the satellites on their slave masters who are having trouble feeding themselves?”51

Reagan often tore out articles from Human Events, a far right-wing newspaper, and other sources, stuffing them into his pockets for later use in speeches. He frequently got facts wrong, as journalists liked to point out. But aside from his carelessness with details, there was a method. Reagan borrowed disparate ideas, radical as well as mainstream, and fastened them together.

So it was with his vision of missile defense. The visit to NORAD in 1979 had rekindled the idea. Another prompt came from Daniel O. Graham, a retired army lieutenant general, a hawkish former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who was a member of the Committee on the Present Danger. Graham created a study group known as High Frontier, chaired by Karl R. Bendetsen, a former undersecretary of the army and retired chief executive of Champion International Corporation, a forest products company. Several of Reagan’s wealthy kitchen cabinet friends backed the effort and provided money to carry out the study. Reagan met at the White House for nineteen minutes with Bendetsen and two other members on January 8, 1982. Bendetsen handed the president a memo claiming the Soviets had already surpassed the United States in military offensive power, and urging Reagan to start a crash effort to research strategic defenses.52

Yet another prompt came from Edward Teller, the theoretical physicist who founded the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and played a key role in the development of the hydrogen bomb. As California governor, Reagan had visited Livermore for a two-hour briefing on missile defense in November 1967. Teller, a Hungarian who fled fascism in the 1930s, had long dreamed of a weapon that could shoot down ballistic missiles in flight. At the time Reagan visited Livermore, the Johnson administration had announced plans to build a very limited missile-defense system, Sentinel. Later, Nixon redirected it to a larger system called Safeguard, a two-layered defense built to protect 150 Minuteman missiles in North Dakota. Safeguard was taken down in 1976, having become essentially useless against a Soviet missile force carrying MIRVs, which enlarged the potential number of incoming warheads beyond the ability of Safeguard.

Nonetheless, Teller continued to nurse his dream of a weapon that could shoot down missiles. He claimed that nuclear weapons were about to make the leap to a “third generation,” the first generation being atomic bombs and the second the hydrogen bomb. The third generation, he said, would be nuclear-pumped X-ray lasers in space that could destroy ballistic missiles.

Teller met with Reagan in the Oval Office for a half hour on September 14, 1982. Teller, then seventy-four years old, shook hands with Reagan. “Mr. President,” he said. “Third generation, third generation.” Reagan looked momentarily confused, as if Teller were preparing to talk about his relatives.53 Then Teller explained his vision of an X-ray laser that he called Excalibur. An effective missile defense would turn mutual assured destruction on its head, Teller said—and lead to “assured survival” instead. Reagan asked him if an American antimissile system could really be made to work. “We have good evidence that it would,” Teller replied. In his memoirs, Teller recalled feeling afterward that the meeting was not very successful; a National Security Council staffer “injected so many questions and caveats that I felt discouraged about the conference.”54 But Reagan had been listening. “He’s pushing an exciting idea,” Reagan wrote in his diary that night, “that nuclear weapons can be used in connection with Lasers to be non-destructive except as used to intercept and destroy enemy missiles far above the earth.” Reagan may not have fully grasped that Teller was talking about setting off nuclear explosions in outer space.55

The MX political impasse weighed heavily on the Joint Chiefs of Staff when they filed into the White House Cabinet Room at 11 A.M. on December 22, 1982, to meet Reagan. At one point near the end of the meeting, Anderson said, Reagan asked the military leaders, “What if we began to move away from our total reliance on offense to deter a nuclear attack and moved toward a relatively greater reliance on defense?” After the chiefs went back to the Pentagon, Anderson said, one of them telephoned Clark, the national security adviser, and asked, “Did we just get instructions to take a hard look at missile defense?”

“Yes,” Clark said, according to Anderson.56

Soon after, on January 3, 1983, the president announced creation of a bipartisan commission to review the entire strategic weapons program and to recommend alternative basing modes for the land-based missiles. This was an attempt to break the political stalemate.57

In the same weeks, Admiral James D. Watkins, the chief of naval operations, the top officer of the navy, accelerated his own search for answers. Watkins had no concrete suggestions for revising the structure of U.S. strategic forces, nor was he prepared to suggest a replacement for offensive nuclear deterrence, according to historian Donald R. Baucom.58 But Watkins and the other chiefs were notified they would meet with Reagan again soon. The joint chiefs were also looking for a way out of the political deadlock.

On January 20, 1983, Watkins had lunch with a group of high-level advisers that included Teller, who described his hopes for the nuclear-pumped X-ray laser. Watkins found Teller intensely excited about the idea, predicting it could be ready in the next twenty years. Watkins did not favor the nuclear explosions in space, but he directed his staff to help him come up with a short, five-minute presentation he could make “which would offer a vision of strategic defense as a way out of the MX debate.” On February 5, Watkins presented it to the other chiefs in Vessey’s office and was surprised: the other chiefs went along, weary of the gridlock with Congress. They agreed the chairman, Vessey, would present it to the president.

The day of the meeting with Reagan, February 11, was cold and snowy; road conditions were so bad that the joint chiefs had to take four-wheel-drive vehicles to the White House. The five military men sat on one side of the table and Reagan on the other, flanked by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and the White House deputy national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane. The son of a Democratic congressman, McFarlane was a career marine officer who had worked in the White House in the Nixon-Ford years, and was extremely sensitive to the intermingling of military affairs and national politics. McFarlane recalled that he was brooding in these months about what seemed like a political dead end. The nuclear freeze movement was popular, the MX was in trouble in Congress and the Soviets were building land-based missiles while the United States was stalled. McFarlane began to think they needed a technological way out of the impasse, such as missile defense. In January, he privately lunched with Watkins.59

Weinberger did not share the enthusiasm of the chiefs for missile defense, and as he introduced the military leaders at the meeting, he told Reagan, “I don’t agree with the chiefs, but you should hear them out.”

Then Vessey, the chairman, gave a presentation about the problems of the land-sea-air triad caused by the congressional votes. But in the last part of his talk, Vessey suggested that it was time to take another look at strategic defenses. “We move the battle from our shores and skies,” said the briefing paper from which Vessey read. “Thus, we are kept from the dangerous extremes of (a) threatening a preemptive strike, or (b) passively absorbing a Soviet first strike—we have found the middle ground.” This was “more moral and therefore far more palatable to the America people …” Watkins then spoke and strongly supported Vessey.

McFarlane intervened to drive home the point: “Mr. President, this is very, very important.” He added, “For 37 years we have relied on offensive deterrence based on the threat of nuclear counter-attack with surviving forces because there has been no alternative. But now for the first time in history what we are hearing here is that there might be another way which would enable you to defeat an attack by defending against it and over time relying less on nuclear weapons.”

“Do you all feel that way?” Reagan asked. One by one, the president questioned the chiefs, and they responded affirmatively. The chiefs had not proposed a crash program to build missile defense; they had only proposed taking a harder look at it, given the political obstacles they had all confronted in Congress. But Watkins asked a rhetorical question that captured all Reagan had been thinking. “Would it not be better if we could develop a system that would protect, rather than avenge, our people?”

“Exactly,” Reagan said, seizing a slogan. “Don’t lose those words.”

That evening, in his diary, Reagan wrote of the meeting with enthusiasm. He said that out of the session had come “a super idea. So far the only policy worldwide on nuclear weapons is to have a deterrent. What if we tell the world we want to protect our people, not avenge them; that we’re going to embark on a program of research to come up with a defensive weapon that could make nuclear weapons obsolete? I would call upon the scientific community to volunteer in bringing such a thing about.”60

The next day, Saturday, February 12, 1983, the capital was buried in one of the heaviest snowfalls of the century. The Reagans invited Shultz and his wife, O’Bie, to an informal dinner at the White House. Talkative and relaxed, Reagan offered Shultz a look at his “real feelings, his beliefs and desires,” Shultz recalled. Reagan told Shultz of his abhorrence of mutual assured destruction. The Friday meeting with the joint chiefs was still on his mind. “How much better it would be, safer, more humane, the president felt, if we could defend ourselves against nuclear weapons,” Shultz said. “Maybe there was a way, and if so, we should try to find it.” What Shultz didn’t grasp was that Reagan was going to do something about it—soon.

Reagan was also eager to test his own negotiating skills. Arms control talks with Moscow were deadlocked. In his diary, Reagan wrote, “Found I wish I could do the negotiating with the Soviets …” Shultz said Reagan “had never had a lengthy session with an important leader of a Communist country, and I could sense he would relish such an opportunity.” Shultz, seeking a thaw in negotiations, offered to bring Dobrynin to the White House for a meeting the following Tuesday. Despite objections from aides, Reagan agreed.

When Dobrynin showed up at the State Department for a routine scheduled appointment with Shultz at 5 P.M., the secretary said he had a surprise: a meeting with the president. They left from the State Department basement garage, so as not to be noticed, and arrived at the East Gate of the White House, not usually used for official visitors, then went to Reagan’s living quarters. They talked intensively over coffee for nearly two hours. “Sometimes we got pretty nose to nose,” Reagan wrote.61 They ranged over many topics, including Reagan’s insistence that the Soviets sought world conquest, and Dobrynin’s rebuttal that “we are not proclaiming a world crusade against capitalism.” Reagan pressed Dobrynin to grant permission to emigrate for a group of Pentecostals who had taken refuge in the American Embassy almost five years earlier. Reagan promised not to embarrass the Kremlin or “crow” if the request was met. Dobrynin passed it on. “For the Soviet leadership, Reagan’s request looked distinctly odd, even suspicious,” Dobrynin recalled. “After almost three years in office and at his first meeting with the Soviet ambassador, the president actually raised only one concrete issue—the Pentecostals—as if it were the most important issue between us.” But Jack F. Matlock Jr., who was then Soviet specialist on the National Security Council, reflected later that the Pentecostals were “a testing point in Reagan’s mind.”

“Ronald Reagan was intensely interested in the fate of individuals in trouble,” Matlock said. “He wanted to do everything in his power to help them. His harsh judgment of the Soviet leaders was based, more than any other single factor, not on the ideology he talked about so much, but on his perception of the way they treated their own people.”62

In early 1983, at the lunch hour in London, a man often drove his car to an underground garage at a British intelligence safe house on Connaught Street, pulled a plastic cover over it to conceal the diplomatic license tags and went upstairs. The man was Oleg Gordievsky, and he was the KGB’s second-ranking official in the London office. He was also secretly an agent for the British and had been working with them for many years. Their relationship had begun in the 1970s, when Gordievsky was posted by the KGB to Denmark. Emotional, determined and realistic about the failures of the Soviet system, Gordievsky grew disillusioned with communism and fell in love with the West. “My feelings were immensely strong,” he recalled, “because I was living and working on the frontier between the totalitarian world and the West, seeing both sides, and constantly angered by the contrast between the two.

“The totalitarian world was blinded by prejudice, poisoned by hatred, riddled by lies. It was ugly, yet pretending to be beautiful; it was stupid, without vision, and yet claiming to be fit to lead the way and pioneer a path to the future for the rest of mankind. Anything I could do to damage this monster, I gladly would.”

When transferred back to Moscow from 1978 to 1982, he suspended his cooperation with the British, but resumed when he was posted to London in 1982. Gordievsky’s handler there was a man named Jack, and a woman, Joan. Originally they planned to meet once a month, but Gordievsky had so much to tell them, the frequency intensified to once a week. At first they spread out a big lunch for him, but later, with time so short, Gordievsky suggested just sandwiches and a can of beer. Gordievsky was known by a cover name, Felix.63

Gordievsky said the British questioned him hard on political matters. He told them that by early 1983, the Soviet leaders were in a “a state of acute apprehension” about Reagan. The British generally didn’t show emotion in response to his comments, Gordievsky recalled. They sat still, writing in their notepads. They asked simple questions. But one day they were alarmed. Gordievsky had told them something stunning: the First Chief Directorate of the KGB in Moscow had sent instructions to the London station to watch for signs of preparation for nuclear war. This was RYAN—the global intelligence effort started by Andropov in 1981 to collect intelligence on a possible nuclear first strike—which was intensifying in early 1983.

The British “were all under the impression of the prevailing American theory about the balance of the nuclear powers, and the balance will guarantee the peace,” Gordievsky recalled. They were dumbfounded that “the Soviet machine, the Politburo, the Central Committee, the Ministry of Defense,” were worried about “a sudden nuclear attack outside the context of a conflict. It was against all American theories, and also British.”

In the face of these doubts, Gordievsky promised: “I will take a risk. I will put the documents in my pocket and come to the meeting, and you will make photocopies.” Soon, he brought them thirteen pages plus a cover memorandum detailing how the intelligence collection was to be carried out. Gordievsky recalled later that his chief handler, Jack, “was astonished and could scarcely believe” the papers, “so crass were the Center’s demands and so out of touch with the real world.”

On February 17, a document marked sovershenno sekretno, or top secret, had arrived in London for the top KGB official, known as the resident. Arkady Guk was a boastful but ineffective resident who drank heavily. The importance of the document was indicated by the fact it was addressed to each resident by name, marked “strictly personal,” and ordered to be kept in his special file. The title of the document was ominous: “Permanent operational assignment to uncover NATO preparations for a nuclear missile attack on the USSR.”

“The February directive for Guk contained unintentional passages of deep black comedy, which revealed terrifying gaps in the Center’s understanding of Western society in general and of Britain in particular,” Gordievsky recalled. For example, Guk was told that an “important sign” of British preparations for nuclear war would probably be “increased purchases of blood and a rise in the price paid for it” at blood-donor centers. He was ordered to report immediately any changes in blood prices. The KGB failed to realize that British blood donors are unpaid. Likewise, the KGB headquarters had a “bizarre, conspiratorial image of the clerical and capitalist elements in the establishment, which, it believed, dominated British society,” so Guk was ordered to watch for signs that the church and bankers had been given advance warning of nuclear war.

The February instructions contained a staggering workload, page after page of demands. The London residency was supposed to watch the number of cars and lighted windows at government and military installations, and report any changes. It had to identify routes, destinations and methods of evacuation of government officials and their families, and devise plans to monitor preparations for their departure.64

While the Soviets watched for signs of war preparation, Reagan decided to speak bluntly about his views of the Soviet system, as he had done in the British Parliament. He was worried about the expanding nuclear freeze movement. In early March 1983, he wrote in his diary, “I’m going to take our case to the people, only this time we are declassifying some of our reports on the Soviets and can tell the people a few frightening facts: We are still dangerously behind the Soviets and getting farther behind.” In his memoirs, he noted that Nancy Reagan tried to persuade him to “lower the temperature of my rhetoric.” He said he refused.65

On March 8, Reagan flew to Orlando, Florida, for a speech to a group of evangelical Christian ministers. In the address, Reagan described the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world” and urged the ministers to reject the nuclear freeze. “So in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals,” he said, “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourself above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

The words “evil empire” came to embody Reagan’s view of the Soviet Union. He later recalled that he did it on purpose. “I made the ‘Evil Empire’ speech and others like it with malice aforethought; I wanted to remind the Soviets we knew what they were up to.”66

Enthusiastic about what he heard from the joint chiefs about missile defenses in February, Reagan decided to announce his idea. The commission he had appointed on the MX was due to report in April, but Reagan pushed his staff to come up with an announcement on missile defense even before the commission was finished. The president was to deliver a nationally televised address about the defense budget on March 23. Although McFarlane had reservations about moving so quickly, he began to draft an insert for the address that would launch a research effort toward strategic defense. McFarlane typed the first draft March 19. It was a major change from decades of American reliance on offensive forces. The president did not consult Congress, the allies, or even the cabinet until the last minute. Nor did he consult the commission on strategic forces, which was still hard at work. McFarlane said it was Reagan’s idea to keep it under wraps to keep his potential opponents off-guard.67

The idea had materialized largely outside the official policy-making channels. Just weeks before, Reagan signed a new directive on overall strategy toward the Soviet Union in the wake of Brezhnev’s death. The nine-page document covered all the key military, political and economic questions. Yet this key document, a foundation of American policy, included not a single word about missile defense.68 Likewise, by this point, Reagan had submitted four separate defense budget requests to Congress; none made a priority of missile defense.69 The joint chiefs were surprised; they had no idea that Reagan was going to act so quickly.70 Shultz heard of the proposal only two days before Reagan went on national television, and had grave doubts about it.71 Weinberger was opposed, and learned of it at the last minute, while traveling in Europe. Some of Reagan’s aides learned only on the day of the speech. Reagan’s diary shows that after Shultz objected on March 21, he rewrote the section on strategic defense; the next day he rewrote more of the speech—“much of it was to change bureaucratic into people talk.”72 Reagan said he was working on it “right down to deadline” on March 23. Among others, Teller had been invited as a guest to witness the broadcast, sitting on a folding chair in the East Room of the White House while Reagan spoke from the Oval Office.

In the address, Reagan described yet again the window of vulnerability. The Soviets, he said, “have enough accurate and powerful nuclear weapons to destroy virtually all of our missiles on the ground.” Reagan said deterrence had worked—so far. He promised to keep negotiating with Moscow. But then Reagan said he wanted to offer another way.

In words he had written by hand into the text, and which echoed what Watkins had said in their meeting, Reagan declared, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” Reagan said that in recent months, he and his advisers and the Joint Chiefs of Staff “have underscored the necessity to break out of a future that relies solely on offensive retaliation for our security.” Reagan added, “Over the course of these discussions, I have become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence.”73

“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.”

Reagan then asked: “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?” He summoned “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.”

The president then announced that, as “an important first step,” he was ordering up “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.” He closed by saying, “My fellow Americans, tonight we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history. There will be risks, and results take time. But I believe we can do it. As we cross this threshold, I ask for your prayers and your support. Thank you. Good night. And God bless you.”

Reagan’s invention, his vision, was no more than these words. He had spent only twenty-nine minutes on television. Nothing he described about missile defense was in existence, no one in his government had formally proposed it, and whether anything so ambitious could be built was in serious doubt. But he had performed. “I made no optimistic forecasts—said it might take 20 yrs. or more but we had to do it,” Reagan wrote in his diary after the address. “I felt good.”

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