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How Reagan Brought the World to the Brink of Nuclear Destruction

Reagan nearly started a nuclear war. It was everyday citizens, protesting the insanity of nuclear brinkmanship, who stopped him.
 
 
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As Ronald Reagan is lionized this month to commemorate the centennial of his birth, it ought to be recalled that Reagan’s presidency brought America and the world to the brink of infinite peril. President Reagan’s nuclear buildup and nuclear saber-rattling so increased the temperatures inside the pressure cooker of the Cold War that it seemed likely to blow its lid at any moment – splattering everyone standing in the kitchen of Planet Earth. In retrospect, what might have done more than anything else to prevent such an atomic eruption was much the same thing we are seeing in Tahrir Square in Egypt at this very hour. A million outraged citizens, gathering together in one of the most important public spaces in the land, and saying, simply, "no more."

Ronald Reagan was perhaps the fiercest military and nuclear hawk ever to occupy the Oval Office. He may well have believed, as some of my nuclear abolitionist colleagues are pointing out this month, that the elimination of all nuclear weapons was a desirable and achievable goal. Yes, he did say, more than once, "our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth."

But his nuclear policy rhetoric and actions, both prior to and during his first term in office, might well have banished all life from earth instead.

Before he assumed the presidency, Ronald Reagan said "the day of Armageddon isn't far off. ... Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained down upon the enemies of God's people. That must mean that they'll be destroyed by nuclear weapons." He told voters that American national interests would best be served if the United States proceeded to build and deploy several new kinds of nuclear weapons and delivery systems -- the B-1 bomber, the neutron bomb, the Trident nuclear submarine, and the MX nuclear missile. He denounced Soviet leaders as "monsters" and "godless communists." He attacked the SALT II treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev as "an act of appeasement." Indeed, prior to assuming the presidency, Ronald Reagan had opposed every single nuclear arms control agreement negotiated since the dawn of the nuclear age.

Then, soon after his inauguration on January 20, 1981, President Reagan dramatically increased the American military budget (an effort, it was said, to "bankrupt the Soviet Union"). He sought to add each of those new nuclear weapons and delivery systems to the American arsenal, deployed new medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe, and began to contemplate a missile defense system that, from the Soviet perspective, could provide America with the ability to launch a nuclear first strike and defend itself against the remnant Soviet nuclear response. When his Arms Control and Disarmamant Agency director, Eugene Rostow, was asked whether the US and USSR could survive a full-scale nuclear exchange, he replied breezily: "The human race is very resilient." And his vice-president, George H.W. Bush, as well as his top nuclear policy officials, spoke not about avoiding nuclear conflagration, but instead about "waging and winning" something they called a "protracted nuclear war," in which, they insisted, our side could "prevail ... on terms favorable to the United States." (The thesis was explicitly laid out in a landmark article in Foreign Policy magazine by Keith Payne and Colin Gray, called "Victory is Possible.")

By the beginning of the 1980s there were more than 50,000 nuclear weapons deployed on the planet. Yet it would take just a single one to level an entire city and obliterate all its inhabitants -- in the blink an eye, the snap of a finger, the single beat of a human heart. The perpetual nuclear arms race had a Strangelovian madness that was apparent to even the most casual observer.

 
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