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Occam's Razor must surely be one of the most useful tools ever created. It is a postulate used in  philosophical analysis which states that "entities must not be multiplied beyond what is necessary  This rule is interpreted to mean that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable."   It would certainly have been useful to Frances FitzGerald as she spun out the increasingly elaborate and contradictory theories that entangle her history of Ronald Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The first portion of this book attempts to construct plausible psychological theories for why Reagan proposed building the system in the first place--finding clues in his movie career, Puritan theology, etc.  The middle portion tracks the history of the proposal and the fitful attempts to build a system and then in an epilogue she ponders why the system is still being built even after the end of the Cold War.  She handles the facts of the story masterfully, rendering the potentially confusing bureaucratic history of the project in a narrative which is relatively easy to follow.  But she makes the ideology and politics which surround the story unnecessarily bewildering.  Here's a possibility that she seems never to have considered: Ronald Reagan and the supporters of SDI simply want to have a way to stop incoming nuclear missiles from detonating on American soil.

It doesn't seem like this should be such a hard concept to grasp.  Other countries have nuclear missiles, countries which hate America, and they point these missiles at us.  It just shouldn't be that hard to build a technology which will track incoming missiles and shoot them down.  Now, there are some legitimate objections to this viewpoint, let's look at a few and the responses:

    Objection: Actually, it's very hard to build.

    Response: We may as well try, it's not impossible is it?

    Objection: Actually, it is impossible.

    Response: You mean there is some scientific reason why one can't track and shoot down incoming missiles?

    Objection: No, but the enemy could overwhelm it by launching thousands of missiles.

    Response: So we'd be no worse off than we were without the system and it's possible that we could save millions of lives if a rogue state or rebellious general launched one or two, right?

    Objection: But it's hugely expensive, we've spent $60 Billion on it since Reagan's original SDI speech.

    Response: And according to White House budget projections, the U.S. will spend about $1.8 Trillion overall next year, so even if we spent that entire $60 Billion in the next year, that would only be about 3% of the total budget.

    Objection: Did you hear me?  I said $60 Billion; doesn't that number mean anything to you?

    Response: Oddly enough, it just happens to be almost exactly the amount of Bill Gates's current net worth today (Based on Microsoft's current stock price, Bill is worth: $59.2 Billion--7/06/00).  Billions just aren't what they used to be.  This is basically a security system that one, admittedly unusual, U.S. citizen could fund out of his own pocket.

    Objection: Okay, but it would be really destabilizing to have this system.

    Response: Why would it be destabilizing for us to be able to stop a nuclear missile.

    Objection:  Because then China and Russia would have to build many more missiles to guarantee that their attack would succeed.

    Response:  Why do they still have missiles pointed at us?

    Objection:  They hate us.

    Response:  Well, if there are these countries out there that hate us enough to devote their national resources to trying to make sure they can kill us, shouldn't we try to defend ourselves?

    Objection:  No, no, no!  The key to security is to leave ourselves so vulnerable that they know they can destroy us.

    Response:  You lost me there.

    Objection:  That's the beauty of the whole system.  As long as they know they can blow us up, they won't build a lot of missiles.

    Response:  Aren't China and Korea and Iraq and those countries developing nuclear weapons programs just as fast as they can?  Didn't the Chinese actually corrupt our last Presidential election in order to get access to our nuclear secrets?

    Objection:  Well, even if that's true and even if you could build SDI, it would violate the ABM Treaty.

    Response:  What ABM Treaty?

    Objection:  The one we signed with the Soviet Union.

    Response;  What Soviet Union?

    Objection:  You remember them, they're Russia now.

    Response:  Oh yeah, wasn't the Soviet Union the country that tried competing with us in the Cold War, but then found that they couldn't match our technological advances, like SDI, and ended up bankrupting themselves?

    Objection:  Yeah, them

    Response:  Well, the program seems to be working just fine so far.

To give Ms FitzGerald her due, the objector there yielded some points that she would not have, and that makes the book even more confusing.  For example, she maintains that President Reagan was sort of just a national salesman, albeit a great one.  The title of the book, in fact, comes from a Willy Loman speech in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

    Nobody dast blame this man.  You don't understand : Willy was a salesman.  And for a salesman
    there is no rock bottom to the life.  He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give
    you medicine.  He's the man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.  And
    when they start not smiling back--that's an earthquake.  And then you get yourself a couple of spots
    on your hat, and then you're finished.  Nobody dast blame this man.  A salesman is got to dream,
    boy.  It comes with the territory.

So her theory, or one of them, is that Reagan never really believed much in SDI and just proposed it out of desperation when he was doing poorly in the polls.  However, he sold himself and the country so well on the concept, that it refuses to die.  Of course, Reaganauts can't reveal all this, so the program requires an official mythology so there's this official version of the genesis of the idea for missile defense which involves Reagan having an epiphany during a 1979 visit to a NORAD base, when he realizes, reputedly for the first time, that we have no defenses against missile attack.  He is so troubled by this realization, that we lie naked before a nuclear aggressor, that he envisions a space shield.

The author gleefully goes about poking holes in this mythic tale (a tale which to the best of my knowledge she is the only one who believes is central to the history of the program) presenting counter evidence with fanfares and flourishes, seemingly unaware that the evidence she marshals weakens her own theories.  She makes a big deal of the fact that Reagan, when he had previously run for President, had often mentioned how intolerable he found the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction and it's requirement that we live in a state of nuclear terror.  This certainly puts the lie to the official story that she fabricated, but, more importantly, it indicates that, far from a function of political expediency, Reagan's dream of escaping the threat of nuclear weapons was long standing and very nearly central to his vision for his Presidency.  Apply Occam's Razor to Reagan's stated reason for building SDI and it turns out that his own words offer the simplest explanation.  Here's a chunk of his initial SDI speech:

    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 U.S. 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.

    In the meantime, we will continue to pursue real reductions in nuclear arms, negotiating from a
    position of strength that can be ensured only by modernizing our strategic forces. At the same time,
    we must take steps to reduce the risk of a conventional military conflict escalating to nuclear war by
    improving our non nuclear capabilities.

    America does possess now the technologies to attain very significant improvements in the
    effectiveness of our conventional, non nuclear 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.

    As we pursue our goal of defensive technologies, we recognize that our allies rely upon our
    strategic offensive power to deter attacks against them. Their vital interests and ours are inextricably
    linked. Their safety and ours are one. And no change in technology can or will alter that reality. We
    must and shall continue to honor our commitments.

    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. As
    we cross this threshold, I ask for your prayers and your support.

    Thank you, good night, and God bless you.

This speech, the text of which FitzGerald would have done well to include in the book, not only addresses most of her arguments and makes her efforts to discern "real" motives seem silly, it effectively addresses the concerns we hear voiced most often about SDI today--cost, difficulty, reliability, threat to foes, uneasiness of allies, etc..  As was so often the case, Reagan seems to have been able to perceive the future and in this one address to the nation, at the very moment of conception of the program, he anticipated all of the attacks that SDI would meet, laid them before the American people himself and answered them.  What FitzGerald thinks of as a mere sales pitch, looks, to those like me, who support him, an awful lot like vision.  Make that big "V"ision.  Reagan simply saw further and with greater imagination than most other men, but especially than other political leaders.

Two other particularly annoying flaws show up in the book.  First is the author's insistence that Gorbachev, almost alone, is responsible for the end of the Cold War.  It is her thesis that Gorbachev came to power fully intending to destroy the Soviet Union and then set about in a rapid and organized fashion doing so.  She gives no credit to Reagan and is particularly dismissive of the role of SDI and other modern weapons programs in putting pressure on the Soviets.  She cites the fact that they failed to match our arms buildup as evidence that the Soviets were relatively unfazed by our increasing superiority.  One wishes she had at least considered the possibility that Reagan was right and that the Russia was already pushed to the edge and could not possibly keep up.  The failure to vastly increase their defense spending may simply reflect the fact that they were maxed out.  (Also, in light of the Afghan War, it is awfully hard to accept the numbers she cites which show fairly steady spending.  the war must have sucked up resources at some point.)

As to the credit she gives Gorbachev, it appears that she simply took his word for it.  The Bibliography contains virtually no citations to Russian primary sources, though it does cite several of Gorbachev's memoirs.  Considering the level of research that is apparent in the chapters where she chronicles the Star Wars program, this absence of any research is inexcusable and seriously weakens her credibility.

The final, almost laughable, flaw comes in the Epilogue.  She is examining why the program continues even after the end of the Cold War and in discussing Bob Dole's attempt to make missile defense an issue in the 1996 Presidential campaign, points out how little support it had in the polls.  But she goes on to mention results from focus group research wherein people expressed open disbelief that we did not already have an operational system.  As one auto engineer said when told no such defense existed:

    You couldn't pay me enough to believe you.  After all, you see it in the movies.

It turns out that what she describes as disinterest on the part of the populace is actually dangerous ignorance.

In the end, this book which seems intended to demonstrate that Ronald Reagan was divorced from reality, actually demonstrates that the author lives in a kind of Cloud-Cuckoo Land.  It is so hard to believe that an intelligent person could fail to perceive all the inherent contradictions in her version of events, that we can only conclude that her ideology has blinded her to the truth.


Grade: (D+)


Frances Fitzgerald Links:

    -ESSAY : Yes, it was *always* raining in Saigon. (New Criterion, September 2002)

Book-related and General Links:

-REVIEW: Reagan as Peacemaking Cold Warrior: a review of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink by William Inboden (Jason C. Phillips, Jul 2, 2023, University Bookman)
    -     -BOOKNOTES: Author: Evan Thomas Title: The Very Best Men: Four Who Dare - The Early Years of the CIA Air Date: December 17, 1995
    -EXCERPT: from Way Out There
    -REVIEW: Mar 13, 1969 Frances FitzGerald: A Nice Place to Visit, NY Review of Books
       Hanoi by Mary McCarthy
       Trip to Hanoi by Susan Sontag
    -REVIEW: Frances FitzGerald: The Invisible Country, NY Review of Books
       Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885-1925 by David G. Marr
       Hô Chi Minh, le Viêtnam, l'Asie by Paul Mus and edited by Annie Nguyen Nguyet Hô
       War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province by Jeffrey Race
    -INTERVIEW: Returning to a place we've never seen: Frances FitzGerald, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Fire in the Lake," says Americans still get Vietnam wrong because we can't stop looking at our collective American navel. (Fiona Morgan, Salon)
    -BOOKNOTES: Title: Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism  Author: Peter Kann & Frances FitzGerald   (Library of America) (CSPAN)
    -CHAT: with Frances FitzGerald (Washington Post Online)
    -INTERVIEW : Secret weapons : Frances FitzGerald talks about the Bush administration's commitment to national missile defense, the "son of Star Wars" scheme no one seems to understand (Suzy Hansen, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Jun 27, 1974 Frances FitzGerald: The Road from Damascus, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY: May 18, 1972 Frances FitzGerald: THE OFFENSIVE I The View from Vietnam, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY: Mar 26, 1970 Frances FitzGerald: Vietnam: The Future, NY Review of Books
    -REVIEW: of Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War by     Frances FitzGerald  (Gabriel Schoenfeld, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of WAY OUT THERE IN THE BLUE Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War. By Frances FitzGerald (Alan Brinkley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Lars-Erik Nelson: Fantasia, NY Review of Books
       Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War by Frances FitzGerald
    -REVIEW: of  Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan and Star Wars and the End of the Cold War by Frances FitzGerald  Ronald Reagan's Greatest Movie (Roger Gathman, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW: of Way Out There in the Blue ( Ian Williams, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Way Out There... (Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University,
    -REVIEW: WAY OUT THERE IN THE BLUE Reagan, Star Wars  and the End of the Cold War By Frances FitzGerald Captain America (Thomas Powers, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: "Rush to Failure" The flawed politics and policies of missile defense (Stephen M. Walt, Harvard Magazine)
    -REVIEW: FitzGerald looks at Reagan and 'Star Wars' but may have missed the point (John Omicinski,  Gannett News Service)
    -REVIEW: of Way Out There (Rick Perlstein, In These Times)
    -REVIEW: How to win friends and influence history (Ruth Walker, Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW: of Way Out There... (STAN CROCK, Business Week)
    -REVIEW: of Way Out There... (Edward Morris, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of Way Out There:  A new book on SDI gets it dreadfully wrong. (John J. Miller, National Review)
    -REVIEW: Way Out There... (John W. Sloan, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Reporting Vietnam Part One: American Journalism 1959-1969 Part Two: American Journalism 1969-1975 Library of America (Thomas Powers, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The Truth About Vietnam (Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of CITIES ON A HILL A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures. By Frances FitzGerald (Carl N. Degler, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of CITIES ON A HILL A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures. By Frances FitzGerald (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW:  Diane Johnson: Playtime, NY Review of Books
       Cities on a Hill: A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures by Frances FitzGerald
    -REVIEW: Martin Bernal: What Is It About the Vietnamese?, NY Review of Books
       Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam by Frances FitzGerald

    -SPEECH: Ronald Reagan SDI Speech (March 23, 1983)
    -INTERVIEW: COL. ELLEN PAWLIKOWSKI Airborne laser fills vital need, officer says (Lawrence Spohn, Albuquerque  Tribune)
    -The High Energy Weapons Archive: A Guide to Nuclear Weapons (Federation of American Scientists)
    -Military & Armaments - Anti ABC Weapons National Missile Defence (NMD) & Star Wars (SDI)
    -Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:  NON-PROLIFERATION:  Russia Resources
    -Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:  NON-PROLIFERATION:  China Resources
    -ESSAY: The Way to Missile Defense (R. James Woolsey, National Review)
    -ESSAY : Afraid of the Truth (Natan Sharansky, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY : Bush, Missile Defense, and the Critics  (Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., Commentary)
    -ESSAY : The moral imperative of missile defence :  It will end the Cold War practice of threatening to destroy civilians (Richard Perle, AEI)
    -REVIEW : of Hit to Kill : The New Battle Over Shielding America from Missile Attack by Bradley Graham (Jeff Stein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of 'Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and  Politics' by Edward Teller with Judith L. Shoolery (John Gribbin, Washington Post)
-ESSAY: President Reagan's Legacy and U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy (Paul Lettow, July 20, 2006, Heritage)
    -ESSAY: Was the 'Star Wars' Program a New Hope for Reagan?: The 'Star Wars' missile defense program was a bold and unrealistic Cold War endeavor. (Steve Weintz, 6/07/21, National Interest)