The American Bad Dream – (2) MAD and Madness

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Throughout the mid- to late-1980s, nuclear weapons and the threat of a nuclear war were engrossing issues in the media and in society.  Many Americans reacted in disbelief when plans were publicly released for the evacuation of Manhattan in the event of a nuclear attack. [1]  It seemed as if FEMA, by even considering evacuation of major population centers in the event of a nuclear attack, seriously mis-perceived the incredible devastation that nuclear explosions would cause.  Public seminars were convened around the country to explain the actual devastation that would result from a one-megaton nuclear blast over a major population center.

A national “Nuclear Freeze” movement emerged, attracting millions of people.  Its main argument was that if America and the Soviet Union simply agreed to stop making more nuclear weapons, disarmament agreements could be pursued in an orderly fashion.  Indeed, having acquired enough destructive explosive power to destroy all land life on Earth an estimated thirty times over, the need for still more nuclear weapons was far from obvious.  The operative strategy of both the United States and the Soviet Union to avoid a final catastrophe, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), seemed more than aptly named.

In this period of heightened public concern, many new books appeared on the topics of disarmament and weapons strategy arguing, among other things, that new multiple warhead (MIRV) missiles tended to undermine MAD, and that the Reagan Administration’s proposed $1 trillion satellite defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) dubbed “Star Wars,” would not work. [2]  “The Day After,” a TV movie showing a sanitized version of the effects of a nuclear explosion, was produced to remind Americans that nuclear war was unthinkable.

It was the irrationality of the “neo-cons” in the Reagan Administration on these issues that troubled me the most, raising my concerns about dysfunction in government to a whole new level.  The Reagan Administration’s official views, presumptively authoritative, could not withstand scrutiny.  The Reagan Administration asserted that America was behind in the arms race and needed more weapons, specific analyses to the contrary notwithstanding. [3]  With so many weapons already deployed on both sides, the advantage any numerical lead in any category would bestow upon either side was never explained, just presumed.

For its part, the Reagan Administration’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency opposed arms control and refused to negotiate new treaties.  Such treaties were out of the question, we were told, because the Soviet Union could not be trusted.  In one noteworthy press release, the Defense Department officially accused Freeze supporters of having a “folksinger mentality,” without explaining why a freeze and nuclear weapons reductions might be a bad idea.

The official neo-con response to “The Day After” was equally evasive.  It was a movie called “Amerika,” depicting an America ruled by an authoritarian, militaristic government.  We were being asked to think about what it would be like to lose our personal freedoms.  I could never understand how anyone might think that the far-fetched possibility of an actual occupation of the United States by the Soviet Union in its alleged quest for world domination, however fearful that might be, somehow refuted the much more realistic (and completely unrelated) concern about what would happen to the United States in the event of nuclear war.  It was such a bizarre response, in fact, that the uncomfortable feeling it gave me has never gone away.

It is difficult to believe that the Reagan Administration’s officials like Richard Perle could have believed they were actually engaged in a debate with the administration’s critics.  It seems more likely that, with an especially low regard for the intelligence, interest, and attention levels of the American people, they were simply playing mind games, an approach that today we affectionately refer to as “politics.”  The irony here is that President Reagan himself met in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss the possibility of reducing both sides’ arsenals by 50%, an idea earlier advanced by former New York Governor and Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman, a pro-disarmament hero of the Nuclear Freeze:

“[A]t Reykjavik in 1986, … Reagan and Gorbachev nearly agreed to scrap their entire nuclear stockpiles. The sticking point, it turns out, was Gorbachev’s insistence that Reagan confine Star Wars research to the laboratory. Reagan’s refusal to do [that] contributed to the collapse of those negotiations.” [4]

Another irony was that in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, and went out of existence.  By the end of the Reagan years, Soviet communism had already hit rock bottom economically.  Russia was in a depression, barely sustaining itself with a black market economy, and citizens were actively protesting for reforms.  The popular myth in America was that Reagan had brought the Soviet Union to its knees, but that’s just one of several unfortunate myths about the Reagan presidency, some of which we will later address.  It may have been comforting to believe that the Soviet Union posed a conventional military threat to the United States that Ronald Reagan somehow nullified, and that he drove it to oblivion in the nuclear arms race, but those ideas were merely convenient fairy tales.

JMH 2/20/11


[1] The document “Protection in the Nuclear Age,” released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in June 1985, pursuant to the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950, seems sensible enough.   It did not deal with specific evacuation plans, and of course the effectiveness of any survival techniques would depend upon the location, the severity of the attack, and the amount of warning time.

[2] Dr. Robert M. Bowman, the former Director of Advanced Space Programs Development for the U.S. Air Force in the Ford and Carter Administrations, devoted his full-time efforts in those days to touring the country and explaining how faulty and easily undermined such systems would be, and how they could be circumvented in any event by using cruise missiles or other delivery systems that did not rely on ICBM delivery systems.

[3]  Data on the numbers of missiles on both sides, their ranges and ages, and the numbers and sizes of warheads on both sides, was readily available.  The consensus view among experts who explained their conclusions was that the United States was ahead in both numbers and capability.  This “arms race” calculus, however, sadly ignored the reality of the tremendous “overkill” of the nuclear arsenals.

[4] Jonathan Weiler, Why Ronald Reagan Didn’t Really Win the Cold War   The Huffington Post, 2/7/11.

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