The Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," is emerging as
one of the few issues of this (1988) presidential campaign. It should be -- though not
quite the issue that Mr. Bush [Senior] and Senator Quayle might wish it to be.
The essential questions about "Star Wars" should be these: Why do
we continue to debate about and throw money at this fantasy? Why does
Governor Dukakis now feel that he must call SDI anything less than a
A moment's reflection will show that President Reagan's original conception
of the "space shield" is absurd on its face. Consider the following
< Nuclear weapons can be delivered by a variety of means:
intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), bombers, missiles from offshore
submarines, cruise missiles, and even tramp steamers, suitcases, and private
< Even if SDI performs precisely as projected, it will be
effective only against ICBMs.
< Through it's projected capacity to "intercept and
destroy" all incoming ICBMs, SDI promises to "[render] ... nuclear
weapons impotent and obsolete." (Ronald Reagan, March 23, 1983).
Clearly, the President's claim in the third statement is inconsistent with
the undisputed facts in the first two. This simple refutation, pointed out
immediately after Reagan's celebrated announcement, should have ended the debate
then and there. It has not. Instead, the proponents have chosen to ignore this
inconsistency and walk away from it. (What else could they do, except to
capitulate?) Thus the debate continues, and the money continues to flow. (Over
fifteen billion, and still counting).
Having failed to draw attention to, much less provoke discussion of, this
patent absurdity, the critics of SDI have moved on to address the suggestion
that SDI might possibly "perform as projected."
That article of faith has no support whatever among independent scientific
investigators. (Find support, and you will almost certainly also find a Defense
Department Research Grant or Appropriation in evidence). The objections are
straightforward, and by now quite familiar:
< This system of space weapons, designed to destroy thousands of
moving targets within a few minutes of launch, can be totally disabled by a
well-aimed shot by the aggressor at a "command and control"
satellite in fixed orbit.
< The system can be overwhelmed with decoy warheads.
< The computer program written to control this array of hardware
will have to contain millions of lines of error-free programming. This is,
practically speaking, impossible.
< Even if an error-free program were written, we could not know
that we had achieved this amazing accomplishment unless SDI were actually
employed against an attack, since the full system cannot be tested. And yet
high confidence is essential if SDI is to be a credible defense.
< A 95% "success rate" of SDI against a massive nuclear
attack would allow enough warheads through to assure the destruction of the
United States as a functioning civilization.
< The one assured consequence of continued funding of SDI will be
still more transfers of funds from ordinary taxpayers to the nuclear weapons
laboratories and to defense contractors.
In the face of such objections, and many more, SDI has been decisively
rejected by the AAAS, the American Physical Society, the Union of Concerned
Scientists, the Office of Technology Assessment (at least twice), by a poll of
members of the National Academy of Sciences, and by other agencies and
scientific associations too numerous to mention.
The proponents' rejoinders are equally familiar:
< "They all laughed at the Wright Brothers!"
< "That's an interesting point you make, and I want to
assure you that we have some of our best people working on it."
< "If you only knew what we knew -- but, unfortunately, we
can't tell you. It's Top Secret."
Finally, that question-begging evasion that we know so well: "What's the
matter with you? Don't you want to be protected from nuclear weapons?"
But, of course, we do want to be protected! Such a pity that we can't -- at
least, not from hardware in orbit. In essence, "don't you want to be
protected" is the same sort of question-begging argument as: "Why not buy the
Brooklyn Bridge from me? Don't you want to make a fortune in tolls!"
Unfortunately, it appears that many are quite willing to buy the bridge --
compelling scientific opinion and evidence, reflective intelligence, and simple
common sense to the contrary, notwithstanding.
Admittedly, in the face of unrelenting scientific criticism, the early
extravagant claims of the fully-effective continental "space shield"
have been withdrawn by all proponents except, apparently, Ronald Reagan and Dan
Quayle. Instead, the objective of "the New SDI" will be to protect
ICBMs in their silos. Thus the system which was first proposed to "make
nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete," has evolved into a system to
protect nuclear weapons. That which was meant to "replace" the
strategic doctrine of deterrence is now designed to "enhance"
deterrence. And yet, through a persistent employment of what Senator Cohen
describes as "bait and switch tactics," the public is being sold a
"space shield" that even the proponents no longer credit.
How have so many been taken in by the Star Wars gimmickry? There are sobering
intimations all about. We are fast becoming a nation of individuals who have, on
the average, spent more time before a television screen, than in a classroom or
facing a printed page -- a public addressed more and more as potential
customers, and less as citizens, advocates, and reflective thinkers. Thus, our
public and political discourse is no longer designed to inform or to
offer rational argument, but rather to entertain, to reassure,
and above all, to sell.
The promotion of SDI has not proven the feasibility of a space-based defense
from nuclear missiles. Instead, it has demonstrated anew the lack of sales
resistance of much of the American public. This continuing "debate"
exhibits our collective capacity to fall for, and pay for, virtually anything,
provided enough public relations geniuses are assigned to the sales force. And
notorious trait of the American public poses a greater threat to our security,
and to the future of our democratic institutions, than all 10,000 strategic
For the American public, the most compelling question raised by Star Wars, is
not "can we protect ourselves with a space shield?" We can not, and
for reasons that should be clear and persuasive to the reflective citizen. The
essential issue posed by SDI is that of our collective credulity, of our
national "reality principle" -- in short, "Are we capable of
dealing with the real world?" To ask this is to ask, in effect:
we the masters of our fate?"
Accordingly. those who persist in their support of the Strategic Defense
Initiative have failed this national sanity test.