After America closed her doors to an expensive war in Vietnam (1975)1, the nation was in need of an overhaul of the economy, military, and public morale. Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential victory signaled what many believed the country needed to get back on its superpower feet again.
Before Reagan's election
The late 1970s had witnessed the triumph of Marxist governments in Angola and Nicaragua. El Salvador seemed ready to follow suit. The U.S. had been humiliated by the outcome of the Vietnam War (1975), and the Soviets seemed secure in their unrelenting mission to conquer Afghanistan.
Islamic fundamentalists had come to power in Iran. They had captured 52 embassy Americans as hostages, and the Jimmy Carter administration had made a bitterly unsuccessful attempt to rescue them.
As a result of Carter Administration policies, the American military was plagued by low morale, low pay, outdated equipment, and practically zero maintenance on what did exist. Important U.S. military personnel were not reenlisting; it just wasn't worth it to them. In fact, thousands of enlisted men's families survived on food stamps.
The U.S. economy was struggling, burdened by seemingly unstoppable inflation. High tax increases and an upward spiral of interest rates were an everyday occurrence for Americans. The United States seemed in an era of limits; the country seemed to be running out of oil, and in practice, U.S. foreign policy had adopted a stance of co-existence with the Soviet Union and China.
In 1980, the American electorate shooed in a leader with an eye toward countering domestic social changes wrought by Civil Rights and Affirmative Action programs and military superiority and a new sense of political direction. Ronald Reagan was inaugurated the 40th president of the United States in 1981.
Victory through strength
Defense secretary Caspar Weinberger was the new president's right-hand man throughout his mission to build up a massive military to wear down the Soviets in what would be the final years of the Cold War. Reagan's administration revived the B-1 bomber program, which had been canceled by the Carter Administration, and began production of the MX Peacekeeper missile. Reagan's response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20 missile was his approval of NATO's deployment of the Pershing II missile in West Germany, despite much protest.
By the time Reagan stepped down from the helm, he had expanded the U.S. military budget to a staggering 43% increase over the total expenditure during the height of the Vietnam war. That meant the increase of tens of thousands of troops, more weapons and equipment, not to mention a beefed-up intelligence program.
One of Reagan's controversial proposals was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a system intended to make the U.S. invulnerable to nuclear missile attacks by the Soviet Union. By stationing those defenses in outer space, the U.S. was able to circumvent the United Nation's Anti-Ballistic (ABM) Treaty.
In a speech in 1983, President Reagan announced his plans to create a shield against nuclear missile attacks. The news media quickly dubbed his new proposal for the SDI as "Star Wars," as well as characterizing it as a carelessly drawn-up science fiction idea.
Based upon original work by Nikola Tesla, SDI was designed to vaporize missiles from space by way of a laser guidance system, before they reached U.S. soil. The system grew into a series of systems that also formed a layered ballistic missile defense. The SDI was capable of zeroing in on only 30 percent of the earth's surface, and wasn't able to get a fix on the Soviet's nuclear launch sites.
By 1985, after billions of dollars but minimal results, Reagan's SDI was shut down but research continued. The debate over such a defense program continues to simmer over its advisability. But the elusive technologies of that time are a reality now, in the early 21st Century. This is not to state that the 1980's SDI is now a reality, just the portable high powered laser beam which has been deployed in large aeroplanes and in Space.
Lasers have been studied for their usefulness in air defense since 1973, when the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) was first tested against tactical missiles and drone aircraft. Work on such systems continued through the 1980s, with the Airborne Laser Laboratory, which completed the first test laser intercepts above the earth. Initial work on laser based defense systems was overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency2 (DARPA), but transferred to the newly created Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) in 1984. Work continues today under the auspices of the BMDO, the successor to the SDIO.
Current SBL planning is based on a 20 satellite constellation. Kill times per missile will range from 1 to 10 seconds, depending on the range from the missile. Retargeting times are calculated at as low as 0.5 seconds for new targets requiring small angle changes. Thus a system consisting of 20 satellites is expected to provide nearly full threat negation.
Progress and criticism
Throughout President Reagan's two terms (1981-1989), military spending was very high; however, he was able to accomplish it without breaking out into an economic sweat. Reagan's administration managed it while enjoying noticeably positive growth albeit with massive budget deficits.
The Reagan years also saw the beginnings of a dramatic era of innovation. "Silicon Valley"3 came into its own. By contrast, the Soviet Union, and its military, was in an economic dilemma while attempting to stay in the race for preeminence, and their computing industry lagged far behind the West.
Over the years, many analysts have scrutinized Reagan's credibility as a military planner. Some critics have maintained that he engineered the greatest military force of all times, but did so with much waste tripling the national debt. Such projects as taking World War II battleships out of mothballs and modernizing them were of questionable military value to some. Furthermore, reviewers have noted that the president fell short on some objectives, such as his goal of building a 600-ship navy and his Star Wars program.
Despite those debates, the Pentagon acknowledged its debt to the 40th president of the United States: Its newest, most modern aircraft carrier is operational tellingly dubbed the USS Ronald Reagan.
The Reagan administration managed to keep America out of a major war for nearly a decade but with several scary nuclear close calls. Much of the nation's current firepower is a legacy of the Reagan years.
The Soviet Union began to crumble in 1989 with the toppling of the Berlin Wall. America had emerged triumphant and the Cold War was officially ended in 1990.
1: The Fall of Saigon, (known also as the Liberation of Saigon) on April 30, 1975.
2: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, (DARPA), is the agency that created the original Internet
3: "Silicon Valley" is the euphamistic name given to the area between San Jose and Palo Alto California. Palo Alto is a suburban city where Stanford University is located. Nearby is Moffet Field, a Navy base situated on San Francisco Bay contains the primary Internet hub on the West Coast and San Jose whose fields of tulips, corn and orange groves succumbed to a building boom for technology companies.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes regarding Ronald Reagan`s Military Buildup.
By Alexander Haig Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so. As for now, I'm in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course. Following the assassination attempt by John Hinckley By George H.W. Bush It just isn't going to work, and it's very interesting that the man who invented this type of what I call a voodoo economic policy... Speech at Carnegie Mellon University, regarded as a reference to Ronald Reagan