LOOKING BACK: The Mixed Arms Control Legacy of Ronald Reagan

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview
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LOOKING BACK: The Mixed Arms Control Legacy of Ronald Reagan

Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today

Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, died on June 5, 2004, at his home in California. His presidency spanned one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S.-Soviet relations and the history of the nuclear arms race. This article summarizes the Reagan record on nuclear weapons and arms control with the Soviet Union. Some parts of the essay are drawn from "Arms Control and National Security: An Introduction," published by the Arms Control Association in 1989.

Ronald Reagan came to the presidency as a long-time critic of arms control and detente with the Soviet Union, the preeminent U.S. strategic adversary during his eight years in office. Throughout the 1970s, Reagan had argued that the United States was falling behind the Soviets in the nuclear competition and that U.S. long-range ballistic missiles were becoming increasingly vulnerable to Soviet attack. During his 1980 election campaign against President Jimmy Carter, Reagan contended that the unratified Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II) was "fatally flawed." As president, Reagan accelerated strategic nuclear modernization plans and launched modern efforts to build a national missile defense system through his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), raising tensions with the Soviet Union and prompting widespread public concern about the possibility of war between world's two major nuclear superpowers.

Yet, Reagan's early opposition to U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations gradually gave way to a more conciliatory approach that was consistent with his growing concern about the threat of mutual assured destruction. By the time he had left office, Reagan had overcome the reluctance of many of his closest advisers to engage with the Soviets and had forged an enduring diplomatic partnership with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. That partnership, combined with strong U.S. and European public pressure for nuclear restraint, led to some of the most sweeping arms control proposals in history and helped usher in a new age in U.S.-Russian relations.

Reagan and Gorbachev eventually concluded the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement and established the foundation for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which was concluded in 1991. Nevertheless, the full promise of Reagan's and Gorbachev's proposals for radical nuclear weapon reductions remain unfulfilled. U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, although smaller, still confront each other, and many of the strategic weapons systems promoted by Reagan remain in place or have been revived.

The Reagan Buildup

Soon after taking office, and under pressure from NATO allies, the administration resumed talks to limit intermediate-range nuclear forces based in Europe, a process that had begun under Carter. At the outset of these negotiations, the United States proposed the elimination of all U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range (1,000-5,500 kilometers) nuclear weapons on a global basis, the so-called zero-option, which the Soviets rejected. The two sides would gradually move closer to an INF agreement over the next six years.

Reagan's first nuclear initiative, however, went in the opposite direction. In October 1981, he unveiled his plan for a major, strategic modernization program to add thousands of additional warheads and a variety of new delivery systems to the U.S. arsenal, while improving U.S. command and control capabilities. The strategic package, which in large part built on previous programs, called for a big increase in bomber forces, including 100 B-1Bs and the development of stealth bombers, a new land-based 10-warhead strategic missile (the MX), and new intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe. In addition, he proposed deploying more than 3,000 air-launched cruise missiles on bombers. Reagan called for accelerated development and deployment of the Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile and sea-launched cruise missiles.

The MX missile was among the most technically and politically controversial programs of the first years of the administration.

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LOOKING BACK: The Mixed Arms Control Legacy of Ronald Reagan


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