Written by Ambassador Henry Cooper and Daniel J. Gallington
Three decades ago, the former Soviet Union collapsed, and too many have forgotten how it happened — and give the credit to Mikhail Gorbachev, as illustrated by Joshua Rubenstein’s review of "Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union" by Moscow-born historian Vladislav Zubok, now a professor at the London School of Economics.
To be sure, Gorbachev is due some credit, but history should give most applause to Ronald Reagan who orchestrated the collapse, beginning with Reagan’s underlying strategy to seek "Peace through Strength."
Reagan’s perspective was apparent before he became President, because he distrusted the Soviet Union that had cheated on essentially every agreement it ever made, as confirmed by the 1984 General Advisory Committee on Arms Control (GAC) report to Congress — and Russia’s recent record follows the same pattern.
We should be following Reagan’s "Trust but Verify" watchword for negotiations with Putin. Reagan and his supporters criticized past arms control positions of appeasement and concessions that only enabled a major Soviet build-up while we allowed our strategic systems to atrophy.
This was the case for the SALT I Treaty, and SALT II negotiations were headed in the same direction. As Harold Brown, President Carter’s Defense Secretary, said: "We build, they build; we stop and they continue to build."
The Soviets already were then deploying SS-20 Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) ballistic missiles every month, threatening our NATO allies.
Reagan wanted to eliminate that threat and pressed for rapid development and deployment — among five of our NATO allies — of our own INF systems: A combination of Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs) and Pershing II ballistic missiles.
Against this background, consider the succession of Soviet leaders that Reagan said "kept changing on him":
A central Soviet concern in these new talks was the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty ban on development, testing and deployment of space-based missile defenses. They wanted to extend that constraint, and we wanted to reduce, or preferably eliminate it.
Because of growing opposition during the 1980 Presidential campaign, President Carter withdrew the SALT II Treaty from further consideration.
Once elected, Reagan emphasized his interest in deep nuclear reductions in his Strategic Arms Reductions Talks (START), while initiating a major U.S. strategic arms modernization effort to counter the major Soviet buildup that had been in progress for years and seeking a ban on U.S. and Soviet INF systems.
SDI experiments since 1983 had demonstrated advances in American technology paving the way for truly effective ballistic missile defenses, especially those based in space as indicated by Time Magazine cover stories.
The Soviets made their last major effort to disrupt Reagan’s strategy at the October 11-12, 1986 Reykjavik, Iceland meeting, which was alleged to be to plan a future Summit.
In this pivotably important negotiation, Gorbachev essentially agreed to meet Reagan’s START and INF objectives — but at the last minute he demanded that SDI be limited to the laboratory.
Reagan then walked out, because of implied severe limits on the SDI plans and programs to demonstrate the viability of effective space-based ballistic missile defenses. But we captured Gorbachev’s agreement to our START and INF objectives in our continuing negotiations.
Reagan was prepared to abide by the terms of the ABM Treaty for a decade, but he wanted to be free to deploy space-based defenses afterward, which became our objective in Geneva. While Reykjavik was widely billed as a failure, Gorbachev’s concessions enabled us to achieve verifiable INF and START treaties.
However, the ABM Treaty continued to limit our major ballistic missile defense (BMD) efforts — particularly for space-based defenses; this until President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty on Dec. 1, 2001.
But no administration since then has taken advantage of that freedom to build the most effective defenses: ones that are space-based as concluded by Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) studies in the early 1960s.
Reagan’s SDI program changed the world — as Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said at SDI’s National Test Facility on Aug. 2, 1991: "I firmly believe that it was the determination to embark upon that SDI program and to continue with it that eventually convinced the Soviet Union that they could never, never, never achieve their aim by military might because they would never succeed."
Thus, we now need to reestablish Reagan's priority top priority effort and strengthen our space defenses as quickly as possible to avoid a "Pearl Harbor in space." It would be far more consequential that was Dec. 7, 1941.
But we have dangerously regressed; are now playing "catch-up" to new Russian and Chinese missile technologies; and should revive Reagan’s SDI efforts that long ago could have enabled much more effective BMD systems — and for a much smaller investment than we have made.