The Reagan Vision

Ronald Reagan for nuclear proliferationPhoto Courtesy: Reagan Library

From the time the Soviet Union first acquired nuclear weapons to challenge the U.S.’s nuclear monopoly, U.S. and Soviet relations were overshadowed by a policy of Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD.  Under MAD, the concept was that only the risk of catastrophic nuclear retaliation would prevent the other country from initiating a first nuclear strike. As the decades passed under the dark shadow of this policy, each nation was determined to outdo the other in building up its stockpile of ever larger nuclear warheads.  More than 70,000 nuclear bombs were eventually built during the nuclear arms race.

In the U.S., MAD became the entrenched and accepted nuclear weapons policy of both political parties. President Reagan would almost single handedly challenge this MAD policy, often battling his own advisors to force consideration of an alternative nuclear weapons policy. He once described MAD in a 1988 speech as,

It can be said that the old discredited policy of MAD is like two adversaries holding loaded guns to each other’s head. It may work for a while, but you sure better hope you don’t make a slip. People who put their trust in MAD must trust it to work 100 percent – forever, no slip-ups, no madmen, no unmanageable crises, no mistakes -forever… For those who are not assured by such a prospect, and I count myself among their number, we must ask: Isn’t it time we invented a cure for the madness? Isn’t it time to begin curing the world of this nuclear threat?”

Reagan rejected the idea that there was no policy alternative other than the continued threat of the mutual nuclear annihilation. The revolutionary nuclear policy he formulated can be summed as follows:

The Reagan Vision

  1. The global elimination of nuclear weapons through verifiable treaties.
  2. A missile defense shield capable of protecting against cheaters and rogue nations.
  3. The sharing of this missile shield technology with Russia to prevent instability caused by a potential imbalance of nuclear forces if only the U.S. were to have an extensive missile defense system.


Today, as with so many other issues, each political party has a tendency to parse Reagan’s nuclear policy and acknowledge only the portion that is to their liking. Liberals remain skeptical of the viability of a missile defense shield, yet remind us of Reagan’s goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. Conservatives discount the benefits of moving toward the elimination of nuclear weapons and emphasize the necessity to deploy a missile defense system.

Reagan’s genius was understanding that none of these three elements could be separated from the other. His Vision was a package deal. Our national security depended on all three components. This is why at Reykjavik, when he and Gorbachev were two words away from  achieving an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth, he would not – could not – concede the testing of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The wisdom of sharing missile technology was understood by few other than Reagan. Even Soviet Secretary General Gorbachev remained skeptical of Reagan’s offer to share, famously responding that America did not even share its dairy technology with the Soviet Union, surely we would never share our missile defense technology.

Reagan’s motivation for sharing our technology shows the depth of his understanding of what it will take to create a nuclear weapons free world.  He understood that our national security is dependent on other nuclear powers feeling equally secure. That power imbalances created insecurity, and insecurity drives instability. He understood the concept of common security; that our own security is ultimately dependent, in part, on our neighbors’ security.

Heritage Lecture Series: President Reagan’s Legacy and U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy by Paul Lettow