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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 385-386
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Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War
Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. By Frances Fitzgerald. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Pp. 592. $30.
The hope of rendering nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete" that Ronald Reagan raised in March 1983, in his famous "Star Wars" speech, is still very much with us. While both the technology and the political setting have changed since then, the results are thus far pretty much the same.
As Frances Fitzgerald argues in this well-written and provocative book, Reagan's dream had its origins in his fond wish to return the United States to the relative invulnerability that two oceans had afforded it in the past. Fitzgerald traces the taproot of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the idea of American exceptionalism, which has always been as much a religious as a geographical phenomenon. But the proximate cause of Star Wars, as SDI came pejoratively to be known by many, was the unlikely result of a confidence game perpetrated upon what seems, in retrospect, a group of rank amateurs by a hardened corps of Washington's resident main-chance artists. Under the category of with-how-little-wisdom-is-the-world-governed, it makes for a fascinating tale, if a long and at times truly bizarre one.
Among the characters for whom the author provides richly detailed portraits is Caspar Weinberger, a longtime California associate whom Reagan made his first secretary of defense. Known as "Cap the Knife" for his parsimony during his tenure as head of the Office of Management and Budget in the Gerald Ford administration, Weinberger became "Cap the Shovel" when it came to allocating funds for Star Wars. Yet the former counsel for the Bechtel Corporation had scant understanding of the program that he defended so zealously and, ultimately, successfully. (Unaware that the X-ray laser, a foundation stone in the early version of SDI, derived its power from a nuclear explosion, Weinberger only learned the truth on [End Page 385] his way to announce the program's budget to Congress; he finally wound up admitting that the device depended upon a "nuclear event.")
The American hero of the piece is arguably George Shultz, Reagan's second secretary of state. Shultz fought a lonely battle against Weinberger in an effort to keep SDI from crowding off the negotiating table a truly historic opportunity to reduce the number and type of nuclear weapons. But, as Fitzgerald makes clear, it is Mikhail Gorbachev who deserves the lion's share of credit for the success of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START)--not least of all for his patience in putting up with the wild swings in U.S. policy caused by the byzantine feuding within the administration, a result of the vacuum at the top. Ironically, Reagan himself sometimes seems but a bit player in this drama; only near the end of his presidency does he, by instinct or intuition, come to the realization that the hard-liners he brought to power are jeopardizing his place in history. Even here, however, it is unclear whether this epiphany belongs to Ronald Reagan or his wife Nancy, who, by the end of his term, is exercising personal control over the presidential schedule with the aid of a soothsayer.
While Fitzgerald's book combines a journalist's eye for telling anecdotes with a historian's broad perspective, there are a few notable gaps in her account. As another reviewer has noted, her imaginative recreation of the crucial October 1986 Reykjavik summit, based on interviews and secondary sources, would have benefited from a reading of several key and now declassified documents on the subject, including the verbatim transcript of the Reagan-Gorbachev conversations.
Finally, Fitzgerald too quickly passes over what seems to have been a truly major missed opportunity at Reykjavik, when Gorbachev offered to trade away thousands...