Fans of pop culture and pop history are enjoying a documentary series on the National Geographic Channel: The ’80s, The Decade That Made Us. A recent installment focused on Ronald Reagan’s defense posture, including the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars,” as its critics called it.
Host Rob Lowe seemed to want viewers to be appalled at how much we’ve spent on missile defense through the years. But at a total to date of less than $160 billion, SDI may be the best investment the federal government has made since the Louisiana Purchase. The U.S. government now spends almost $10 billion every day, so SDI represents about what we spend in just two weeks.
SDI didn’t just happen, of course. It was highly controversial in the 1980s and has its detractors even today. As Steven Hayward explains in a new “Makers of American Political Thought” essay on Ronald Reagan, SDI happened because President Reagan made it happen, even though many experts insisted he couldn’t:
In 1983, Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire” and shortly thereafter effectively announced the end of the long-standing nuclear doctrine of “mutual assured destruction” when he called for the development of ballistic missile defense.
As the U.S. missile defense program advanced, the Soviet Union collapsed. But SDI is still paying dividends today. Whenever he’s had a chance, President Obama has tried to pare back the program, for example, by cancelling advanced interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic. Yet earlier this year the Obama Administration increased the number of interceptors it has deployed as a way to protect against a possible North Korean attack. As Hayward writes, Reagan knew that a strong defensive program was far better than mutual assured destruction. Our current leaders seem to keep learning that lesson.
Reagan was also farsighted when it came to domestic policy. During his tenure as California governor, his state had 10 percent of the nation’s population but 16 percent of the nation’s total welfare caseload. Hayward reports that Reagan solved that problem by tightening eligibility standards and requiring recipients to work or prepare for work. Soon, some 8,000 people per month were coming off the welfare rolls.
In Reagan’s absence, we’ve lost ground. The Golden State is now home to 12 percent of the nation’s population but has a third of the welfare caseload. It could use some of Reagan’s medicine again.
As Hayward shows, Reagan was anything but the “amiable dunce” Clark Clifford called him. He was a visionary leader, and his ideas remain relevant and effective decades after he left public life. The ’80s made us. And Reagan made the ’80s.