The Star Wars Speech

Feb. 1, 2004

“Defense and National Security”

President Ronald Reagan

Address to the Nation

Washington, D.C.

March 23, 1983


It was in this truly memorable speech that President Ronald Reagan declared, for the first time, his intent to build an anti-ballistic missile defense system—one he hoped would render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” The televised announcement hit like 10,000 volts in Washington and Moscow, which had sworn off talk about missile defenses ever since the two superpowers signed the 1972 ABM Treaty.

It is interesting to note that 80 percent of the 4,500-word speech dealt not with missile defense but with the need to rearm against the Soviet threat. Reagan saved his blockbuster “vision” of a futuristic, high-tech missile defense for the very end.

Reagan’s plan—officially, the “Strategic Defense Initiative”—was instantly dubbed the “Star Wars” program. Soviet President Yuri Andropov called it “insane.” Critics warned it would upset deterrence. However, SDI survived, changing form, size, and name. On Oct. 1, the US will activate a limited missile defense system.

I’ve become more and more deeply convinced that the

human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence. …

If the Soviet Union will join with us in our effort to achieve major arms reduction, we will have succeeded in stabilizing the nuclear balance. Nevertheless, it will still be necessary to rely on the specter of retaliation—on mutual threat—and that’s a sad commentary on the human condition. Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them? Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability? I think we are. Indeed, we must.

After careful consultation with my advisers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I believe there is a way. Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the quality of life we enjoy today.

What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies

I know this is a formidable technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of this century. Yet, current technology has attained a level of sophistication where it’s reasonable for us to begin this effort. It will take years, probably decades of effort on many fronts. There will be failures and setbacks, just as there will be successes and breakthroughs. And as we proceed, we must remain constant in preserving the nuclear deterrent and maintaining a solid capability for flexible response. But isn’t it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is. …

America does possess—now—the technologies to attain very significant improvements in the effectiveness of our conventional, nonnuclear forces. Proceeding boldly with these new technologies, we can significantly reduce any incentive that the Soviet Union may have to threaten attack against the United States or its allies. …

I clearly recognize that defensive systems have limitations and raise certain problems and ambiguities. If paired with offensive systems, they can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy, and no one wants that. But with these considerations firmly in mind, I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

Tonight, consistent with our obligations of the ABM treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies, I’m taking an important first step. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles. This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves. We seek neither military superiority nor political advantage. Our only purpose—one all people share—is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war.

My fellow Americans, tonight we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history. There will be risks, and results take time, but I believe we can do it.