Few presidents saw their reputations on an issue change as dramatically as Reagan on nuclear weapons. He entered office as a neoconservative darling, eager to turn the page on a decade of detente with the Kremlin, which nuclear arms control agreements such as the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty had driven. He left office in 1989 having convinced the Republican Party that eliminating many — if not all — nuclear weapons represented a laudable goal rather than grounds for impeachment.
Yet stymied by his own advisers, even Reagan, for all his success with the INF Treaty, was unable to bring the national security establishment along on more comprehensive nuclear arms limitations, vividly illustrating that visionary leaders alone cannot solve the arms race.
In the East Room of the White House on Dec. 8, 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty, the first nuclear arms pact to eliminate real, existing nukes, namely those on air-launched cruise and short-range ballistic missiles that could fly anywhere from 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
The treaty was a culmination of the friendly, if combative, partnership the two leaders had struck up at summits in Geneva and Reykjavik. In Iceland, for all their ideological differences, the two had roughed out a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and then explored the wholesale destruction of ballistic missiles, strategic forces, even their full nuclear arsenals. The Reykjavik summit ended without a deal when Reagan refused Gorbachev’s demands to limit the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
While Reagan expressed concerns that the two sides had failed to progress toward nuclear abolition, “all that work toward eliminating nuclear weapons would go down the drain,” events in Reykjavik prompted a very different fear both outside and inside of his administration: that Reagan might give away the farm.
The result was a backlash against arms talks in the Pentagon and the White House. The national security establishment saw winning the military-industrial competition with the Soviet Union as more than a necessary exercise of prudence to protect national security — it was the cardinal article of faith.
To defense officials, the very premise of arms control negotiations was flawed — even when they got their way. At Reykjavik, Gorbachev had acquiesced to nearly every U.S. position in the INF talks, including the wholesale elimination of the weapons in Europe and Asia without heed for the British or French arsenals. Afterward, however, when Secretary of State George Shultz requested more negotiating room at the Geneva-based talks, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger belittled arms control, explaining that if the superpowers trusted each other enough to verify such pacts, they wouldn’t have needed them in the first place.
This fierce backlash hamstrung the negotiations.
National security adviser John Poindexter (later caught up in the Iran-contra scandal) had originally praised how close Gorbachev had come to U.S. positions in Reykjavik. He nonetheless counseled a wait-and-see approach that included turning up the heat on Soviet human rights transgressions and scorched-earth tactics in Afghanistan. He begged Reagan to “step back” from loose talk of nuclear disarmament for fear of dismaying allies and alarming the military.
At Poindexter’s urging, Reagan narrowed his focus to offensive ballistic missiles. Yet even this more limited policy proved too much for senior military officials.
Reagan and Shultz understood that the supposed bang-for-the-buck of nuclear forces would lead the military brass to ask for the moon in exchange for sacrificing them, but even they were shocked at the military’s recalcitrance. When the Joint Chiefs of Staff studied what hardware they would need to defend the United States in a world without ballistic missiles, Chairman William Crowe’s price tag was so big and so rife with qualifications that Reagan felt a need to assure his top general that, as president, he was not in fact “living in a dream world.”
The military’s argument about the hefty cost of doing without the weapons did not stem from budget concerns. The Democratic takeover of the Senate in 1987 would have made increased military appropriations tougher to pass. Yet the defense establishment displayed little concern for this roadblock when military superiority was on the line. When it came to the massive expenses related to SDI, for example, Weinberger defended the exorbitant costs with a flip “If you can do it, it’s cost-effective.”
Shultz’s plan to use the INF signing ceremony in Washington as a springboard for finalizing START in Moscow six months later was the final straw.
In the weeks before the Washington summit, national security adviser Colin Powell became so worried that events were spiraling out of his control that he and his staff devised what NSC nuclear expert Robert Linhard called “a whole list of possible tricks for deflecting momentum of conversation and buying time.” When Gorbachev made one last, face-to-face appeal to expedite START in time for the next summit, Reagan declined, citing his “problems with bureaucracy.” It took four years, and the looming collapse of the Soviet Union, before the U.S. Navy would relent on the final stumbling block — sea-launched cruise missiles.
What drove this fierce backlash, so great that even Reagan, the heartiest of Cold Warriors, could not overcome it?
The culture and conceptions of power tied to understandings of national security. In the minds of the military and its allies, nuclear weapons do more than deter aggression from other nations. They are the ultimate guarantors of American global primacy and justify the vast political influence wielded by the national security establishment as well. Put more bluntly: these weapons are a major component of a military-industrial juggernaut that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in 1960, and that is forecast to spend $798 billion per year by 2022, with the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security now the main customers for roughly 10 percent of all industrial production in the United States.
The force of the reaction against nuclear arms control in the second Reagan administration raises a troubling question: did the Cold War arms race actually end, or have we merely sat through a 30-year intermission? Nuclear arms control is not just stuck in neutral, it is shifting into reverse, worldwide. Every nuclear-weapon state is now modernizing its arsenal. According to the Arms Control Association, the United States alone is set to spend approximately $1.7 trillion by 2046 on new bombs, missiles, bombers, submarines and related systems.
Thirty-one years after Reagan and Gorbachev initialed the INF Treaty, Donald Trump and national security adviser John Bolton look to have issued its death warrant. If they allow the New START Treaty with Russia to expire without a replacement on February 5, 2021, the U.S. and Russian arsenals will be ungoverned by international agreement for the first time since November 1972. Reagan’s willingness to break with the verities of the Cold War and, above all, to elevate his moral rejection of mutual assured destruction above military-industrial demands, threatened the national security establishment’s worldview and its post-World War II status. Until our defense leaders question why arguably the securest nation in world history is consumed by military superiority, any president will struggle to rein in the natural tendencies of states to arm themselves and for other states to arms themselves in kind.
To break that vicious cycle requires more than wise leaders, even those as transformative and surprising as Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. It requires a broader change in how the American people and their defenders think and talk about national security.
This post has been updated.