Remember the Eighties? Of course you do. Big hair, acid wash, synthesized music, Wall Street. But do you remember the politics of the Eighties? Like how a former actor who had been seriously big in the 1940s became the president of the United States?
After losing the Republican presidential nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan officially became president in 1981, and would serve two terms in the Oval Office. While in power, one of his most famous and controversial measures was the implementation of the “Strategic Defense Initiative”, which became mockingly known in the media as Reagan’s Star Wars program.
So, what was the Strategic Defense Initiative all about?
What was the Strategic Defense Initiative?
The Strategic Defense Initiative was introduced in 1983 and its ambitious goal was to develop a space-based missile defense system that would protect the United States from nuclear attack. In particular, President Ronald Reagan sought to defend against nuclear missiles sent by the Soviet Union. Thanks to the Cold War, one of the greatest fears at the time was Mutually Assured Destruction (or MAD), the expected result of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Enter the Strategic Defense Initiative, or the SDI program. The basic idea was that it would employ a network of ground, air, and space radars to detect and pinpoint oncoming intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), then use this information to intercept the nuclear warheads before they reached U.S. soil.
The SDI program would be heavily dependent on satellite technology and, while the final line of defense was to focus on regular air and ground missiles, the front-line techniques were to include a variety of ray laser and mirror systems, subatomic particle beams, computer-guided ballistics, and electromagnetic rail guns, all controlled by a central supercomputer.
Reagan’s Star Wars Struggles to Get off the Ground
The scale of Reagan’s Star Wars initiative was large, and not without issues. For one, very little of the technology required for the SDI program had even been researched or tested, let alone completed or perfected. It was also soon determined that nuclear power would be the only feasible way to generate the kind of power necessary. This would have required multiple new nuclear power plants at enormous financial cost to the country.
Besides practical concerns regarding its development and effectiveness, there were also arguments made that such a system would not comply with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that had taken place before the Strategic Defense Initiative was proposed. This led to fears of Soviet retaliation, and widespread criticism from nations around the world.
The cost was also set to be an issue, with estimates at the time varying wildly from the $40 billion estimated by its most devoted advocates, all the way up to 2.5 trillion by its staunchest opponents. While the real figure was estimated to be in the $120 billion range, clearly it was still going to cost the American taxpayer a pretty penny.
As for the name “Star Wars”, it was allegedly Ted Kennedy who coined the phrase. Reagan never intended it to be called that, and reportedly loathed its continued usage by the public, the media, and most of all, his facetious political opponents, a circumstance Kennedy almost certainly enjoyed greatly.
The Strategic Defense Initiative Today
Some parts of the Strategic Defense Initiative did manage to endure and actually are increasingly being used around the world today. The ground to air missile defense systems originally meant to be the last line of defense are now a staple of international defense technology. The bulk of the Star Wars program was eventually eliminated, however. Despite lofty goals of it being an impenetrable and innovative defense system, in the end the obstacles it faced were simply far too great.
Politically controversial, technologically problematic, and financially impossible, it was ultimately abandoned. Now it is merely a historical footnote, and an occasional tool of irony for trivia buffs to reference each year on National Star Wars Day.