Home / Robert Farley / Star Wars Didn’t Matter

Star Wars Didn’t Matter


Given the coincidence of “May the Fourth be With You,” and the season finale of The Americans, this is worth a look:

The archival documents also help dispel the notion that the Star Wars program pushed the Soviet Union closer to the brink of an economic collapse. No one would argue that the Soviet economy was in good shape, and military spending was one of the factors dragging it down. But the cost of the arms race was very far down the Soviet leadership’s list of concerns at the time of the Reykjavik summit. Rather, it was the danger of a continuing nuclear buildup that motivated Gorbachev and his advisers to seek negotiated weapons reductions. While the Soviet Union did have a plan to respond to SDI with a similar program of its own, the documents show that work on that plan wound down long before the Soviet leaders came to appreciate the expense associated with missile defense.

US missile defense was never really an effective economic stressor on the Soviets — according to their estimates, technical counter-measures to defeat missile defenses would have cost no more than five percent of their SDI-like program. With these estimates in hand by the summer of 1987, the Soviet leadership felt confident that it could drop its opposition to Star Wars and go ahead with treaty negotiations and later disarmament talks. Although SDI remained a contentious political issue for many more years, the documents show that the Soviets did not believe it posed a danger to their nuclear forces, even after significant reductions in their arsenal.

Finally, the Soviet documents very clearly demonstrate the fallacy of the “dissuasion” argument advanced by American missile defense proponents. One of the ideas that emerged from the Star Wars debate and still circulates involves introducing uncertainty into calculations about the potential effectiveness of ballistic missiles. By creating such uncertainty, this argument goes, SDI demonstrated to the Russians that investing in missiles was futile. Instead, Star Wars had exactly the opposite effect. Far from being dissuaded from investing in missiles, the Soviet Union launched a number of projects in the mid-1980s that were designed to build new and better intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would be able to counter an SDI-like system.

I’m not sure that there’s any defense program in modern history that’s founded more on fantasy and falsehood than BMD. The critical scene in The Americans was perfect:

It is incredible. From the Latin, ‘incredibilis.’ ‘In’ meaning ‘not.’ “Credibili’ meaning … The technology, it’s ‘incredibilis.’ At best, it’s 50 years from being even remotely operational. The whole thing’s a fantasy.

Incidentally, The Americans is so much better than Homeland that it’s no longer useful to compare the two. Noah Emmerich is the real star, playing an FBI agent that plausibly resembles in attitude and mannerism actual, human employees of the FBI.

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  • I remember reading an article in the Economist in 1988 I think in which the reporter had visited some college and described how the students were forced to take a break from classes so they could go harvest cabbages using knives. That level of economic and societal malfunction had roots much further back than the election of Ronald Reagan, and had more to do with the USSR’s collapse than did Star Wars.

    • It still happens in parts of the former USSR. All of the Turkmen students I had while teaching in Central Asia were let out of school every harvest to go pick cotton by hand. Of course they picked cotton during the reign of Turkmenbashi after the USSR collapsed. But, it was continuation of a longstanding policy that also existed during Soviet times.

      • Data Tutashkhia

        From what I heard, not only they would send school children to pick cotton (that would be quite ordinary), but sometimes they would just grab random people on the streets, into buses, and off they go, cotton-picking for a day. Now, that’s some forced city-country-desegregation busing for you.

        • I had not heard of any forced busing to Turkmen cotton fields. Officially legal segregation in the USSR by race ended on 3 November 1972 when ethnic Germans were no longer banned by virtue of being of German descent from living in European areas of the USSR. But, as far as I know there was never any attempt to forcibly integrate society by busing. The forced resettlement of people in the USSR always used trains instead.

  • Many things sunk the Soviet Union, not least of which was the glut of oil on the market in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

    Oil was their main export and source of hard currency. The very low price of oil at that time seriously hurt their economy.

    • TT

      Even some of the folks at AEI are now admitting this basic fact.

    • joe from Lowell

      Forty years of containment paid off, and Reagan (who had spent 20 years trashing containment) was able to recognize the historic opportunity and execute one of the greatest flip-flops in American history.

      George Will wrote, the day after the Reykjavik Accords were signed, that “Yesterday will be remembered as the day America lost the Cold War.” Ha ha.

      • Linnaeus

        George Will wrote, the day after the Reykjavik Accords were signed, that “Yesterday will be remembered as the day America lost the Cold War.” Ha ha.

        That reminds me: when the INF Treaty was signed (or when it was ratified a few months later), one of the local papers, which took a generally conservative stance on things, published an editorial titled, “A Day That Will Live in INFamy”. Ha ha indeed.

        • Alan Tomlinson

          “Forty years of containment paid off . . .”

          post hoc, ergo propter hoc

          Got any solid evidence for causality there?


          Alan Tomlinson

          • Warren Terra

            Dude, seriously?

            Remember, the comparison here isn’t containment versus friendship – its containment versus more open conflict. World War Three didn’t happen, and the democratic powers weren’t brought down by the commies. By the relevant scorecard, and comparing Containment to Bomb Em Till They Glow, containment worked great.

          • joe from Lowell

            Post hoc erg propter hoc beats the hell out of post hoc ergo non propter hoc, Alan.

            The burden of proof would seem to fall on those claiming that the A, which was put into place to lead to B, and was followed by B, was not caused by A.

    • Actually it was the high price of oil in the 1970s that allowed their economy to continue to grow although at a much reduced rate from the 1960s despite increasing economic problems. Had the 1973 Arab-Israeli War not led to an OPEC decision to reduced production, the Soviet economy would have started shrinking during the 1970s rather than in the 1980s.

  • cpinva

    nothing new here, the efficacy of the proposed Star Wars missile defense shield was debunked shortly after it was proposed, by a president who’s knowledge of science came from 1950’s scifi movies. the actual collapse of the soviet union began way back in the 60’s, when their various and sundry ” 5 year” programs never quite made the grade, and they were importing basic foodstuffs, to feed their people. this, in spite of having huge amounts of fertile, arable land, for growing their own.

    when every decision is made, based on ideology, not facts on the ground, that system is pretty much pre-ordained to eventual collapse.

  • DocAmazing

    I was a youthful fan of science fiction at the time, and it was really irritating how should-have-known-better types like Ben Bova were carrying water for SDI. Reagan’s genius was in getting otherwise intelligent people to accept his lunatic premises.

    • Mike Schilling

      Even moreso never-will-know-better types like Jerry Pournelle.

      • Not to mention Edward Teller and other actual (if Strangelovian) scientists and engineers.

        From his wiki page:

        His claims led to a joke which circulated in the scientific community, that a new unit of unfounded optimism was designated as the teller; one teller was so large that most events had to be measured in nanotellers or picotellers.

    • LosGatosCA

      To paraphrase Sam Spade, “We didn’t exactly believe your lunatic premises. We believed your $200B spending program you were offering. Which was more than would be needed to make the system operational if that was possible, but more than enough to make it all right.”

      • Bruce Baugh

        +1. Beautiful.

      • Tiny Hermaphrodite, Esq,

        Beautiful, I’ll steal that (with your permission).

    • FMguru

      It was pretty clear that SDI was the best hope for meaningful spending on building space infrastructure after the Apollo program wound down, and that SF writers and fans figured it was a necessary path towards getting those O’Neil cylinders in L-5 that they’d always dreamed of.

    • Alan Tomlinson

      I find the usage of the word “genius” in connection with Reagan to be quite absurd. He wasn’t developmentally disabled, but he was in no way, shape, or form a genius.


      Alan Tomlinson

  • The most impressive thing in the Americans to me is that they didn’t give the Smiley-esque “each of our systems is as corrupt as the other / we’re just playing our little games” attitude any narrative force. The characters struggle to reconcile their conceptions of how the world works with their emotions as they make their way through it without devolving into cheap cynicism. That’s impressive for any show, but for a spy drama where the main characters are Communist sleeper agents it’s incredible.

    Emmerich is very good (how he gave playing racquetball a sense of menace I still don’t know) but the real star of the show is obviously the wig master.

    • DocAmazing

      Watching Felicity as the Red Menace does make me smile, as well.

    • Tom M

      Where do they keep all those wigs? Impressive logistics on the show.

      I gave up on it after the episode when the sleepers, the supposed best agents with the most indoctrination, were the first ones tortured by their own people to find the mole. Um, no.
      As a drama about 2 people keeping a marriage together, sure.

  • George Lucas

    Star Wars Didn’t Matter

    I have 4bn reasons to disagree with you.

    • LosGatosCA

      The Ruskies could never keep up with the action figure licensing rights.

  • Nick

    This sounds pretty much like the account of Reykjavik in Dark Sun, Richard Rhodes’ follow-up to The Making of the Atomic Bomb. That is, Gorbachev wanted total disarmament, but knew that he wouldn’t be able to sell that to his own military bureaucracy without bringing home the end of SDI as a trophy. IIRC, the final sticking-point had to do with a demand that experiments outside the laboratory be banned for a number of years, and Reagan’s advisors — who hated the idea of total nuclear disarmament — told him that that agreement would essentially end SDI research, even though they had no actual basis for thinking that, and as it turned out afterwards SDI scientists said it wouldn’t have mattered.

    • Hob

      I believe that’s more or less the same picture painted in Way Out There in the Blue, except that in FitzGerald’s view Reagan was a little more of a wild card who, despite being easily led by his advisors(*), didn’t always understand what they wanted him to do or why, and scuttled the Reykjavik talks out of impatience without really realizing what he had been on the verge of committing to.

      (* There’s a chilling anecdote about how people in the administration quickly figured out that Reagan was likely to follow the advice of whichever person he saw last, so power struggles were conducted via scheduling.)

  • joe from Lowell

    At best, it’s 50 years from being even remotely operational.

    Which is ok! We could give the program its own little R&D budget, and let scientists work the problems one after another for decades, and then roll it out when there is actually something roll out. I’m sure that all sorts of useful scientific and engineering advances would result from the endeavor.

    What’s not ok is spending a boatload of money to build it now.

    • DocAmazing

      I shudder to think of what the Tang equivalent in SDI spin-offs might have been…

      • joe from Lowell

        Powdered whiskey?

        • DocAmazing

          Dehydrated gin, for making a really, really dry martini.

      • allium

        There was Clementine.

  • I read all the debunking of SDI at the time, but what really convinced me that missile defense was hogwash was the way it was endlessly publicized. For obvious reasons, serious military innovations such as stealth technology are developed in secret. If you think it’s going to work, you don’t talk about it.

    • cpinva

      it was endlessly publicized, in a pathetic attempt to convince someone, anyone at all, that it was somehow feasible, with current technology. the assumption being that those stupid commies would fall for it. of course, those “stupid commies” had highly trained scientists of their own, who probably all got a big chuckle out of the whole thing.

    • LosGatosCA

      I respectfully dispute that assertion.

      Those liberal fascists FDR/Truman kept the Manhattan Project secret because they were inferior strategists to Reagan who hyped SDI at every turn. Had FDR/Truman been publicizing the Manbattan project it’s almost 100% certain that the Germans and Japanese would have surrendered sooner when their circumstances were understood to be economically unsustainable. Almost 100% certain. Maybe a little less. Virtually the same almost. I’m pretty sure.

      • LosGatosCA

        Also, too, would Richard Perle lie to his own countrymen? Or to the Russians?

        I think that any program that had Reagan, Perle, and Weinberger providing their public support had to be of the highest integritude. Literally. And figuratively. Also virtually.

        • Warren Terra

          Richard Perle of course being so relentlessly dishonest that it’s a trial to get his breakfast order right.

          • herr doktor bimler

            Richard Perle […] a trial
            Don’t tease us.

            • cpinva

              damn, beat me to it!

    • herr doktor bimler

      The whole saga was a lesson for politicians that Yes, you can politicise science, and you can get away with it. I mean, faked ‘tests’ of ABMs (with transmitters in the target missile to ensure that the interceptor could find it)… the fraudulent results from tests of Teller’s Excalibur project… on the other side, good scientists like Hans Bethe pointing out again and again that there were holes in SDI big enough to fly an orbital space laser through, and getting no traction.

      I have a theory (and it is mine) that much of the contemporary “Republican war on science” is a legacy from the SDI days. Politicians got used to the idea that if they didn’t like what some scientist was telling them, that was OK, they could just go out and buy a different scientist. And it’s hard to blame the public for a certain cynicism about science being merely a tool of politics — a cynicism encouraged and exploited by climate-change denialists — when SDI exists as an object lesson.

      • SteveHinSLC

        I have a theory (and it is mine)

        This did not go unnoticed.

      • ajay

        I have a theory (and it is mine) that much of the contemporary “Republican war on science” is a legacy from the SDI days.

        Interesting point – a lot of it is from the tobacco wars, of course, but SDI might well have had something to do with it. Also the Team B fiasco – if you don’t like what your intelligence community is saying, set up another one!

  • Ken

    to build new and better intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would be able to counter an SDI-like system.

    In computer science, there’s this type of problem we call “NP-complete”. Basically it means that when the amount of data gets a little bit bigger, the time needed to solve it grows exponentially. Or, if you have to solve it within some time limit, the amount of computing power you need grows exponentially.

    Scheduling is an NP-complete problem: You have a certain number of tasks to do, each with a deadline. You have resources that can solve the tasks. Finding a scheduling of tasks to resources that finishes all of them on time is NP-complete – you might be able to solve it for 10 tasks, but every time I add a task you have to expend exponentially more resources to solve the larger problem.

    It sounds like someone in the Soviet Union noticed that you can replace task with “incoming ICBM”, deadline with “destruction of a major city”, and resource with “Star Wars defense station”. Meaning every time they add one missile, we have to double the SDI budget, just to maintain the same level of effectiveness.

    Heck, I noticed this, back in the early 80s when I was an undergraduate. Pity none of our computer people working on SDI noticed it; or more likely, as LosGatosCA said, they knew it but it was their paycheck.

    • Bene Tleilaxu

      The prospect of having to double or triple the SDI budget if the Soviets adopted the cheap counter-measures available to them was definitely Feature, not Bug.

      • Malaclypse

        Besides, SDI provides no defense against using the Family Atomics against the Shield Wall.

        • Warren Terra

          Reagan’s name is a killing word.

    • cpinva

      “or more likely, as LosGatosCA said, they knew it but it was their paycheck.”

      that was pretty much the whole point of the program, much as the B-2 bomber in the 90’s. oh, and more recently (like, a week ago), additional M1A1 Abrams tanks, that the army doesn’t want, but congress does.

  • Noah Emmerich playing an FBI agent? Are you certain you haven’t confused The Americans with White Collar?

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