The Star Wars Enigma

The Star Wars Enigma:Behind the Scenes of the Cold War Race for Missile Defense

By Nigel Hey

Potomac Books, 288 pages, $27.95

If you want to read a terrific, utterly riveting book about the goings on at the top levels of our government — loaded with memorable anecdotes of fights among Cabinet members and even a few Top Secret memos —— don't waste your time and money on Bob Woodward's latest screed.  Run out and get your hands on Nigel Hey's account of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, and of the role played by SDI — better known as Star Wars — in ending the Cold War.

On March 23, 1983, President Reagan went on television to deliver a talk to the American people about the Federal budget.  In the final ten minutes of his speech —— after one of those long pauses that Reagan's critics always pointed to as evidence that the Old Man just wasn't up to the job —— the President changed the course of history:

Let me share with you a vision of the future that 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.

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?

It was a bombshell, and it detonated simultaneously over Moscow and Washington.  The Soviet Union's leaders understood instantly that Reagan had altered the rules of the game that had for decades enabled Moscow to wage its Cold War across the globe.  After all, what Reagan was proposing was construction of a shield over the US that would render the Soviet Union's missiles obsolete.  And in Washington, top officials at the State Department and the Pentagon realized that in what most listeners had taken to be just two casually spoken paragraphs of an otherwise unremarkable budget speech, the President had engineered the biggest shift in defense policy in decades — an end to Mutually Assured Destruction, otherwise known as MAD — while launching a massive new technological project it would be their jobs to turn from a dream into reality.

In The Star Wars Enigma Nigel Hey, a science and technology writer but also a former senior administrator at Sandia National Laboratories — in short, an author who actually knows what he's talking about —— traces the history of missile defense before the President's March 23 speech, and after.  He provides the clearest, most complete history ever published of the Soviet Union's own missile—defense programs.  And he traces the origins of the idea of strategic defense within our own country's tightly—knit — but rarely united — community of Cold War scientists including such luminaries as Edward Teller and Gerald Yonas.

Hey goes on to provide a comprehensive, sometimes startling account of how Russian scientists and politicians on the one hand, and American scientists and politicians on the other, scrambled to understand what President Reagan had actually meant — and, more importantly, what they were supposed to do about it.  Remarkably, the same two schools of thought emerged on both sides.  In one secret meeting after another — some among Russians in Moscow, others among Americans in Washington —— the pro—Star Wars and anti—Star Wars partisans started slugging it out.  The pro—Star Wars partisans held that while shooting down an incoming missile was currently beyond the ability of technology, it actually coud be made to work given enough time and, even more importantly, enough money.  The anti—Star Wars partisans held that SDI was just a utopian dream, or perhaps merely a psychological ploy to shake the Kremlin and soften up its leaders for serious arms limitation talks.

As Hey recounts, the one thing everyone came to understand was that 'Reagan was firmly in the saddle, and nothing was going to buck him off.'  In other words, SDI was the President's baby — so much for the notion that the Old Man was just an actor reciting lines that others had written for him — and the only thing you couldn't do with SDI was ignore it.

Hey moves skillfully from the science of strategic defense to the politics of it.  And his account of Margaret Thatcher's key role in facilitating, and sometimes easing, the crucial relationship between Reagan and the Soviet Union's new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, is among the most accurate ever written.

Hey provides a serious and even—handed analysis of the role Star Wars really played in ending the Cold War.  One view, held by both American and Soviet cold warriors, is that SDI was nothing less than the proverbial 'bullet between the eyes' that brought down the Soviet Union.  (Here I must declare an interest.  The official quoted as saying this is — me. I was among those whose job it was to provide the President with intelligence about the impact of SDI on the Kremlin, and I am among those former officials Hey interviewed.)  Another view, also held by both American and Soviet cold warriors, is that SDI played only a limited role in ending the Cold War.

Hey comes down squarely in the middle, which presumably is why he sees Star Wars as the 'enigma' of his title: 'There is no way of measuring how much SDI contributed to the Soviet Union's fall.  But SDI did contribute, and the Cold War did end... peacefully.'

So the Cold War is over, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.  But the threat of incoming missiles seems greater today than it was back then.  And we still don't have the kind of missile—defense system that President Reagan envisioned.  But to his very great credit President Bush is moving forward just as fast as possible.  If one day the lunatics in Iran, or North Korea, or from al Qaeda ever fire a missile at the US — and if that missile is destroyed en route — President Bush will have earned the gratitude of all Americans for his steadfast efforts to turn President Reagan's dream into reality.

The real history of Star Wars is just beginning to unfold, and Nigel Hey's book ought to be required reading for all the world's leaders.

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council.

The Star Wars Enigma:Behind the Scenes of the Cold War Race for Missile Defense

By Nigel Hey

Potomac Books, 288 pages, $27.95

If you want to read a terrific, utterly riveting book about the goings on at the top levels of our government — loaded with memorable anecdotes of fights among Cabinet members and even a few Top Secret memos —— don't waste your time and money on Bob Woodward's latest screed.  Run out and get your hands on Nigel Hey's account of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, and of the role played by SDI — better known as Star Wars — in ending the Cold War.

On March 23, 1983, President Reagan went on television to deliver a talk to the American people about the Federal budget.  In the final ten minutes of his speech —— after one of those long pauses that Reagan's critics always pointed to as evidence that the Old Man just wasn't up to the job —— the President changed the course of history:

Let me share with you a vision of the future that 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.

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?

It was a bombshell, and it detonated simultaneously over Moscow and Washington.  The Soviet Union's leaders understood instantly that Reagan had altered the rules of the game that had for decades enabled Moscow to wage its Cold War across the globe.  After all, what Reagan was proposing was construction of a shield over the US that would render the Soviet Union's missiles obsolete.  And in Washington, top officials at the State Department and the Pentagon realized that in what most listeners had taken to be just two casually spoken paragraphs of an otherwise unremarkable budget speech, the President had engineered the biggest shift in defense policy in decades — an end to Mutually Assured Destruction, otherwise known as MAD — while launching a massive new technological project it would be their jobs to turn from a dream into reality.

In The Star Wars Enigma Nigel Hey, a science and technology writer but also a former senior administrator at Sandia National Laboratories — in short, an author who actually knows what he's talking about —— traces the history of missile defense before the President's March 23 speech, and after.  He provides the clearest, most complete history ever published of the Soviet Union's own missile—defense programs.  And he traces the origins of the idea of strategic defense within our own country's tightly—knit — but rarely united — community of Cold War scientists including such luminaries as Edward Teller and Gerald Yonas.

Hey goes on to provide a comprehensive, sometimes startling account of how Russian scientists and politicians on the one hand, and American scientists and politicians on the other, scrambled to understand what President Reagan had actually meant — and, more importantly, what they were supposed to do about it.  Remarkably, the same two schools of thought emerged on both sides.  In one secret meeting after another — some among Russians in Moscow, others among Americans in Washington —— the pro—Star Wars and anti—Star Wars partisans started slugging it out.  The pro—Star Wars partisans held that while shooting down an incoming missile was currently beyond the ability of technology, it actually coud be made to work given enough time and, even more importantly, enough money.  The anti—Star Wars partisans held that SDI was just a utopian dream, or perhaps merely a psychological ploy to shake the Kremlin and soften up its leaders for serious arms limitation talks.

As Hey recounts, the one thing everyone came to understand was that 'Reagan was firmly in the saddle, and nothing was going to buck him off.'  In other words, SDI was the President's baby — so much for the notion that the Old Man was just an actor reciting lines that others had written for him — and the only thing you couldn't do with SDI was ignore it.

Hey moves skillfully from the science of strategic defense to the politics of it.  And his account of Margaret Thatcher's key role in facilitating, and sometimes easing, the crucial relationship between Reagan and the Soviet Union's new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, is among the most accurate ever written.

Hey provides a serious and even—handed analysis of the role Star Wars really played in ending the Cold War.  One view, held by both American and Soviet cold warriors, is that SDI was nothing less than the proverbial 'bullet between the eyes' that brought down the Soviet Union.  (Here I must declare an interest.  The official quoted as saying this is — me. I was among those whose job it was to provide the President with intelligence about the impact of SDI on the Kremlin, and I am among those former officials Hey interviewed.)  Another view, also held by both American and Soviet cold warriors, is that SDI played only a limited role in ending the Cold War.

Hey comes down squarely in the middle, which presumably is why he sees Star Wars as the 'enigma' of his title: 'There is no way of measuring how much SDI contributed to the Soviet Union's fall.  But SDI did contribute, and the Cold War did end... peacefully.'

So the Cold War is over, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.  But the threat of incoming missiles seems greater today than it was back then.  And we still don't have the kind of missile—defense system that President Reagan envisioned.  But to his very great credit President Bush is moving forward just as fast as possible.  If one day the lunatics in Iran, or North Korea, or from al Qaeda ever fire a missile at the US — and if that missile is destroyed en route — President Bush will have earned the gratitude of all Americans for his steadfast efforts to turn President Reagan's dream into reality.

The real history of Star Wars is just beginning to unfold, and Nigel Hey's book ought to be required reading for all the world's leaders.

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council.