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Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the alarming build-up of nuclear armaments. Both nations based their policy on what was known as Mutually Assured Destruction – MAD for short. Though popular at the outset, this policy became the target of more and more criticism. Many Americans felt uneasy about a defense system based upon the ability to retaliate. Such sentiments led President Reagan to propose what he called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in 1983. Reagan announced at that time, “I call upon the scientific community who gave us nuclear weapons to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

Just what did President Reagan have in mind? He envisioned the development of exotic, high tech weapons – x-ray lasers, electromagnetic rail guns, kinetic-kill vehicles, neutral particle beam weapons – that would defend the people of America by zapping enemy missiles before they could reach their targets. Unfortunately, however, not everyone shared Reagan’s vision. Here is how one Congressman commented on the program, “ Other than the fact that the SDI system can be under-flown, overwhelmed, outfoxed, cannot be operated by humans but only by computers, would breach a number of arms control treaties and could trigger a thermo-nuclear war, it’s not a bad system.”

The Soviets also objected to the system, claiming that the Americans simply wanted to have a sword to wield over them. Despite such objections, however, the SDI program was launched in 1984. The initial goal of the program was to provide a protective shield over the whole U.S. territory to protect from Soviet attack. In 1985, though, it was decided that it was not feasible to provide such an encompassing umbrella and the scope was narrowed. A renewed objective of protecting key military installation sites was then formulated. The cost of the program has run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, the vision of President Reagan to have SDI replace the Mutually Assured Destruction program has not been realized. SDI has not made nuclear weapons ‘impotent and obsolete.’ Rather, SDI has become a program to enhance nuclear deterrence – adding some defense to the traditionally offensive focus. It has also enhanced the U.S. first strike capability.