March 23

This Day in History

Cold War

Mar 23, 1983:

Reagan calls for new antimissile technology

In an address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan proposes that the United States embark on a program to develop antimissile technology that would make the country nearly impervious to attack by nuclear missiles. Reagan's speech marked the beginning of what came to be known as the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Despite his vigorous anticommunist rhetoric, Reagan made nuclear arms control one of the keynotes of his administration. By 1983, however, talks with the Soviets were stalled over issues of what kinds of weapons should be controlled, what kind of control would be instituted, and how compliance with the controls would be assured. It was at this point that Reagan became enamored with an idea proposed by some of his military and scientific advisors, including Dr. Edward Teller, the "father of the hydrogen bomb." What they proposed was a massive program involving the use of antimissile satellites utilizing laser beams or other means to knock Soviet nuclear missiles out of the sky before they had a chance to impact the United States. Reagan therefore called upon the nation's scientists to "turn their great talents" to this "vision of the future which offers hope." He admitted that such a highly sophisticated program might "not be accomplished before the end of this century."

Reagan's speech formed the basis for what came to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, though pundits immediately dubbed it the "Star Wars Initiative." Some scientists indicated that even if the SDI were able to destroy 95 percent of Soviet missiles, the remaining five percent would be enough to destroy the entire planet. Nevertheless, Congress began funding the program, which ran up a bill of over $30 billion by 1993 (with little to show for the effort). The Soviets were adamantly opposed to SDI, and a 1986 summit meeting between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ended acrimoniously when Gorbachev demanded that talks on arms control were contingent on the United States dropping the SDI program. By December 1987, Gorbachev-desperately in need of a foreign policy achievement and eager to reduce his nation's burdensome defense budget-dropped his resistance to the SDI program and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed. The Strategic Defense Initiative never really got off the ground--by the mid-1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and with costs skyrocketing, it was quietly shelved.

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