Star Wars Arm Wrestle
During 1983, President Reagan announced the most spectacular, ambitious, elaborate, and expensive military project in world history. It was called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), but the popular press dubbed the system “Star Wars,” after the popular George Lucas science-fiction movie of 1977. Using an orbiting weapons system, the idea was to create a shield against intercontinental ballistic missile attack by destroying incoming ICBMs before they began their descent. The weaponry was so far beyond even the foreseeable cutting edge as to be fanciful: X-ray and particle-beam devices (as yet theoretical) operated by supercomputers that had to be programmed by other computers. Critics pointed out that Star Wars was not only a violation of the 1972 ABM (antiballistic missile) treaty, but a temptation to thermonuclear war because it promised to make such a war survivable. Others suggested that the system could never be made to work, and still others protested that the staggering cost of the program—$100 to $200 billion—would permanently cripple the nation.
Yet Presidents Reagan and George Bush pursued Star Wars to the tune of $30 billion, even though. the program produced few demonstrable results. Finally, in 1993, anonymous SDI researchers revealed that at least one major space test had been “fixed” to yield successful results. Caspar Weinberger, who had served as President Reagan’s secretary of defense, initially denied these charges, but subsequently claimed that the test in question—and perhaps the entire Star Wars program—had been an elaborate decoy. The program (Weinberger said) had been designed solely to dupe the Soviet Union into spending a huge proportion of its resources on a Star Wars program of its own—a program that U.S. scientists already knew was unworkable.