Los Angeles Times Book Review Section, April 30, 2000, published as "Fire From Above". WAY OUT THERE IN THE BLUE, Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War, By Frances FitzGerald; Simon & Schuster: 592 pp., $30 By RICHARD L. GARWIN* On March 23, 1983, in a few paragraphs appended to an otherwise routine speech supporting the defense budget, then-President Ronald Reagan called upon "the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace; to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." His goal was to "intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies." Reagan was calling for a defense against Soviet long-range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, but he never indicated how such a defense, no matter how perfect, would render nuclear weapons impotent, in view of the fact that they could be delivered in large numbers by aircraft and by short-range ballistic and cruise missiles from ships. Reagan noted explicitly that nuclear attack had been deterred and would be deterred by the capability and promise of nuclear retaliation with a force capable of surviving a nuclear strike, but his rhetoric called for the human spirit to free itself from such a burden by relying on an effective shield. To scientists, industrialists and military leaders gathered at the White House for the speech, it was made clear that the technology of choice for the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, was that of directed-energy weapons, such as space-based lasers and neutral-particle beams in Earth orbit. In "Way Out There in the Blue," the story of Reagan's attempt to build this Star Wars shield, Frances FitzGerald limns the president as a master at understanding the American people, a facility honed by years of refining and presenting "The Speech" in his early public life and as spokesman for General Electric. Soaring elements of his Star Wars paragraphs were added to the draft in his own hand. Yet executing this rhetoric was something else. After all, this was a president who arrived in the Oval Office at 9 on the dot and left at 5. Unless there was a state dinner, he and his wife Nancy were in their pajamas and robes by 6 and in bed by 11. His aides and Cabinet members rarely heard from him about what to do and rarely were asked how they were doing: "He made no demands and gave almost no instructions." "Way Out There in the Blue" documents the lack of an effective national security team, the primacy of appearance over substance and the striking isolation Reagan achieved from the mechanisms and decisions of the government he headed. FitzGerald makes clear that the $60 billion spent on Star Wars has accomplished little. In a meticulously detailed argument, she debunks the popular myths of SDI: First, it did not bring the Soviet Union to its knees and, second, it has done nothing toward easing the threat of nuclear annihilation. In fact, when it comes to national missile defense, the Clinton administration is contemplating a $40-billion to $100-billion deployment-- a defense that will not even work against the tiny threat that is supposed to justify its deployment. FitzGerald, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Fire in the Lake," her 1973 account of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, comes to her account of Reagan's Star Wars project well prepared. It is a technically difficult and convoluted story; one is astonished by the scope of her excellent book and its relevance to the present controversy over the development and deployment of a U.S. national missile defense, which she takes up perceptively in a final chapter. By the time of his speech in March 1983, Reagan had been in office for two years, and his administration, which was facing a feisty nuclear freeze movement, was stymied in its plans to increase U.S. nuclear offensive forces. It had committed itself to deploying the 10-warhead MX missile, dubbed the Peacekeeper, arguing that the existing land-based U.S. missiles (known as Minuteman) were vulnerable and that our ability to deter a Soviet attack was imperiled (despite the invulnerable U.S. submarine-launched strategic missiles at sea). To replace Minuteman in its silos with MX missiles would not remedy the vulnerability of land-based missiles, so dozens of alternative "basing modes" were evaluated, most of them vulnerable and unsatisfactory. U.S. Roman Catholic bishops questioned the moral acceptability of nuclear deterrence, except perhaps as an interim means of survival, so supporters of SDI were quick to emphasize its moral superiority over security systems designed to avenge rather than protect. In reality, even if its missile silos became vulnerable to Soviet attack, the United States had the ability to launch its missiles before a significant number had been destroyed, and submarine-based missiles were intended to be an adequate deterrent by themselves. As for the feasible task of defending an individual Minuteman (or MX) silo against missile attack, the Air Force saw no real need: It did not accept that the silos were vulnerable to attack, and the Army did not see the task of silo defense as sufficiently challenging. The Air Force judged simply that it was time for a missile of a new generation. The Joint Chiefs had discussed with Reagan limited silo defense, and the Defense Department was sponsoring research programs in directed-energy weapons. But on the very day of the Star Wars speech, Defense officials were testifying in Congress resisting additional funds for such weapons, and Reagan's science and technology advisors in a two-year study had just concluded that the field was not ripe for development for military use. Nothing of the scope of Reagan's Star Wars goal-- absolute protection-- had been proposed. There was no way that SDI could counter enough of the Soviet missiles to replace nuclear deterrence. As a means for reducing vulnerability of U.S. missiles in their silos, it was excessive in scope, and a local defense of individual silos would have been quicker and easier. Indeed, despite his call for a system that would provide absolute protection, Reagan later wrote in his memoirs that in a world in which there were still nuclear weapons, SDI was to ensure that if an enemy "ever pushed a button to attack, he would be doing so in the knowledge that his attack was unable to prevent a devastating retaliatory strike." Yet, according to his national security advisor, Robert McFarlane, Reagan's motives were far from straightforward. "(He) was convinced that we were in fact heading toward Armageddon. 'I'm telling you, it's coming,' he would say. 'Go read your Scripture.' " Reagan and his staff knew that they would gain little by promising to make the American people half-safe; the approach they adopted to sell SDI sacrificed the credibility of the American democracy and security system on the altar of personal and administration popularity. Following the Star Wars speech, a large study under former NASA head James C. Fletcher laid out a panoply of technical research and development options that would explore strategic defenses costing a projected $25 billion over the first five years and $75 billion in research and development over the first 10. But they did not envision a defense system effective enough to eliminate the need to maintain large nuclear strike forces. The proposed $75-billion program was for exploration, not to develop or build a defense. According to the vice chairman of the Fletcher study, Harold M. Agnew, the program risked having large defense contractors smother innovative research programs in their rush for defense allocations or, more colorfully, the "hogs (would) trample the piglets on the way to the trough." FitzGerald sketches Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) in 1985 trying to make sense of the testimony of SDI and Defense leaders. Leap to January 1987, with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and others calling for a deployment of SDI. It is not clear whether Weinberger understood that there was no technology available and that a deployment decision was out of the question. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., objected, telling Congress that there was nothing to deploy. Crowe began formal Defense Department assessment of deployment, with the chiefs adding a minimum requirement that SDI destroy a modest 30% of a first wave of a limited Soviet missile attack. To meet this minimal goal, a system of hundreds of space-based battle stations and hundreds or thousands of ground-based interceptors was proposed. The chiefs thought a projected figure of $75 billion to $150 billion was far too low, and the proposal was sent back to the drawing board. On March 11, 1985, Mikhail S. Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. By July, Washington and Moscow announced that Gorbachev and Reagan would meet in Geneva that November, and preparations for the summit began. Whatever the substance might be, public relations and domestic popularity were the supreme goals, at least on the U.S. side. The Reagan administration was loaded with officials to whom arms control agreements were anathema-- especially Weinberger, Richard N. Perle and Kenneth M. Adelman, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. A week before the summit, an unclassified letter was sent from Weinberger to Reagan; it was designed to be leaked to the press, and it was. It warned the president against agreements with Moscow. At the Geneva summit, Gorbachev offered a 50% cut in strategic missiles, with a ban on weapons in space (missiles which pass through space are not regarded as space weapons). Reagan had committed himself not to accept restraints on development or tests of space weapons. According to McFarlane, Gorbachev "had to conclude . . . either that Reagan was being cynical with all his preaching about eliminating nuclear weapons, and his real intention was to bankrupt the Soviet system; or he was incredibly ignorant." FitzGerald relates and interprets the course of the Reykjavik summit in October 1986, a surreal event during which the two sides agreed on the elimination of all ballistic missiles and all strategic arms by 1996. But the agreement was nullified by Reagan's refusal to consider any limits on space weapons, or-- alternatively-- by Gorbachev's refusal to let them be developed without constraint after 10 years. The United States had made little preparation for Reykjavik and, according to Adelman, "We came with nothing to offer and had offered nothing; we merely sat there while the Soviets unwrapped their gifts." FitzGerald tells us far more about this summit and about aspects of SDI and the Cold War than high-level participants knew at the time. "The administration never did inform the joint chiefs of what had transpired," FitzGerald quotes Crowe, who relayed to the president the chiefs' message that the president's proposal to eliminate ballistic missiles was not in the national interest. Weinberger believed that Reagan shouldn't be told-- that the proposal would vanish on its own. When Crowe did inform the president at a meeting of the National Security Council, Reagan responded with, "I really love the U.S. military" but without addressing the chiefs' bombshell. The end of the Cold War was upon us before Washington recognized it, with President-elect George Bush asking Gorbachev in December 1988 what the Soviet Union would be like for U.S. investors in three to five years. To which Gorbachev responded: "Mr. Vice President, even Jesus Christ couldn't answer that question." SDI supporters assert that their program forced the Soviet Union into defense spending it could not afford, thus hastening its demise, but Gorbachev spent little in response, did not consider a defense of his own and, by the Washington summit of December 1987, told Reagan, "If in the end you have a system you want to deploy, go ahead and deploy it." The two presidents signed a treaty abolishing U.S. and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles of intermediate range (the INF Treaty) worldwide-- on Dec. 8, 1987 at 1:45 p.m., the awkward hour prescribed by Nancy Reagan's astrologer. In her final chapter, FitzGerald describes the current turmoil over the decision President Clinton will make in July on whether to deploy a national missile defense with 100 ground-based interceptor rockets in Alaska to defend all 50 states against a few tens of ICBMs launched from North Korea (or four or five from Iran or Iraq). The interceptor payload must actually collide with its target to destroy it, a so-called hit-to-kill payload. FitzGerald infers that deployment is a matter of principle with the Republican leaders in Congress and not a measured response to an actual threat. Which brings us full circle to SDI. There are two potential strategic payloads for long- range missiles: biological agents and nuclear warheads. The proposed national missile defense system that would intercept warheads far above the atmosphere could not possibly destroy the hundreds of small bomblets into which biological warfare agents would be packaged; as the ICBM reached full speed on ascent, these bomblets would be released and would arc independently to the urban target area a continent away. Strategically speaking, this is far more effective than a single massive warhead that releases a narrow wind-driven plume of anthrax or other biological warfare agent; the smaller plumes from the bomblets would increase the number of casualties by a factor of four to 10. A national missile defense system or not, a nation willing to violate its adherence to the biological warfare convention that bans the possession or use of biological warfare would use bomblets released on ascent-- and save 80% of the missiles needed for the same military effectiveness of a single large biological warfare warhead. For the other strategic payload on an ICBM-- a single nuclear warhead-- the simplest countermeasure to prevent interception by the proposed defense system is to put the warhead in a small, lumpy aluminum-coated Mylar balloon, while deploying dozens of fairly similar empty balloons as decoys. It is easy to match the temperature of the empty balloons, day or night, to that of the "anti-simulation balloon" surrounding the nuclear warhead, so that an interceptor kill vehicle can't distinguish a decoy from a warhead. The president's decision to deploy is to be based on the threat, the effectiveness of the proposed defense, its cost and its impact on security in general, including U.S. goals in massive reductions of Russian nuclear weapons and in limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The SDI experience has much to teach us about the distance from rhetoric to reality. "Way Out There in the Blue" is a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of international diplomacy and arms control which leaves one with an overwhelming sense of dismay at the missed opportunity to reduce the threat that Russian nuclear weapons pose to the survival and security of the world. Why is it that the U.S. government is so persistently unable to deal with the most important aspects of national security? We are the world's experts in spin and public relations, as FitzGerald deftly shows, but it is an expertise gained at the expense of facts, integrity, the national good and international stability. __________ * Richard L. Garwin is Philip D. Reed senior fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations and a longtime consultant to the U.S. government. Since the late 1950s, he served as a member of the Strategic Military Panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee under Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon.