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Key Issues Missile Defense History Ronald Reagan on the SDI

Ronald Reagan on the Strategic Defense Initiative
December 28, 1984

Since the advent of nuclear weapons, every President has sought to minimize the risk of nuclear destruction by maintaining effective forces to deter aggression and by pursuing complementary arms control agreements. This approach has worked. We and our allies have succeeded in preventing nuclear war while protecting Western security for nearly four decades.

Originally, we relied on balanced defensive and offensive forces to deter. But over the last twenty

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years, the United States has nearly abandoned efforts to develop and deploy defenses against nuclear weapons, relying instead almost exclusively on the threat of nuclear retaliation. We accepted the notion that if both we and the Soviet Union were able to retaliate with devastating power even after absorbing a first strike, that stable deterrence would endure. That rather novel concept seemed at the time to be sensible for two reasons. First, the Soviets stated that they believed that both sides should have roughly equal forces and neither side should seek to alter the balance to gain unilateral advantage. Second, there did not seem to be any alternative. The state of the art in defensive systems did not permit an effective defensive system.

Today both of these basic assumptions are being called into question. The pace of the Soviet offensive and defensive buildup has upset the balance in the areas of greatest importance during crises. Furthermore, new technologies are now at hand which may make possible a truly effective nonnuclear defense.

For these reasons and because of the awesome destructive potential of nuclear weapons, we must seek another means of deterring war. It is both militarily and morally necessary. Certainly, there should be a better way to strengthen peace and stability, a way to move away from a future that relies so heavily on the prospect of rapid and massive nuclear retaliation and toward greater reliance on defensive systems which threaten no one.

On March 23, 1983, I announced my decision to take an important first step toward this goal by directing the establishment of a comprehensive and intensive research program, the Strategic Defense Initiative, aimed at eventually eliminating the threat posed by nuclear armed ballistic missiles.

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) is a program of vigorous research facused on advanced defensive technologies with the aim of finding ways to provide a better basis for deterring aggression, strengthening stability, and increasing the security of the United States and our allies. The SDI research program will provide to a future President and a future Congress the technical knowledge required to support a decision on whether to develop and later deploy advanced defensive systems.

At the same time, the United States is committed to the negotiation of equal and verifiable agreements which bring real reductions in the power of the nuclear arsenals of both sides. To this end, my Administration has proposed to the Soviet Union a comprehensive set of arms control proposals. We are working tirelessly for the success of these efforts, but we can and must go further in trying to strengthen the peace.

Our research under the Strategic Defense Initiative complements our arms reduction efforts and helps to pave the way for creating a more stable and secure world. The research that we are undertaking is consistent with all of our treaty obligations, including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

In the near term, the SDI research program also responds to the ongoing and extensive Soviet anti-ballistic missile (ABM) effort, which includes actual deployments. It provides a powerful deterrent to any Soviet decision to expand its ballistic missile defense capability beyond that permitted by the ABM Treaty. And, in the long-term, we have confidence that SDI will be a crucial means by which both the United States and the Soviet Union can safely agree to very deep reductions, and eventually, even the elimination of ballistic missiles and the nuclear weapons they carry.

Our vital interests and those of our allies are inextricably linked. Their safety and ours are one. They, too, rely upon our nuclear forces to deter attack against them. Therefore, as we pursue the promise offered by the Strategic Defense Initiative, we will continue to work closely with our friends and allies. We will ensure that, in the event of a future decision to develop and deploy defensive systems - a decision in which consultation with our allies will play an important part-allied, as well as U.S. security against aggression would be enhanced.

Through the SDI research program, I have called upon the great scientific talents of our country to turn to the cause of strengthening world peace by rendering ballistic missiles impotent and obsolete. In short, I propose to channel our technological prowess toward building a more secure and stable world. And I want to emphasize that in carrying out this research program, the United States seeks neither military superiority nor political advantage. Our only purpose is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war.

As you review the following pages, I would ask you to remember that the quality of our future is at stake and to reflect on what we are trying to achieve the strengthening of our ability to preserve the peace while shifting away from our current dependence upon the threat of nuclear retaliation. I would also ask you to consider the SDI research program in light of both the Soviet Union's extensive, ongoing efforts in this area and our own government's constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense. I hope that you will conclude by lending your own strong and continuing support to this research effort - an effort which could prove to be critical to our nation's future.

Ronald Reagan

December 28, 1984.

Source: Ronald Reagan, "Foreword Written for a Report on the Initiative," December 28, 1984, Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 21, 1 (January 7, 1985): 8-9.