How Star Wars Went From Fantasy to Fact

1218_Reagan Russia Star Wars Program
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty at the White House, on December 8 ,1987. Thirty-three years before there was "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," there was a real Stars Wars program that changed the course of history, the author writes. Dennis Paquin/Reuters

This article first appeared on The Daily Signal .

Thirty-three years before there was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there was a real Stars Wars program that changed the course of history. Here’s the remarkable and true story.

In March 1982, Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner and retired Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, former director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, outlined the results of a $50,000 study that urged the Reagan administration to adopt an all-out effort to develop both military and peaceful uses of space.

The most dramatic recommendation was for the development of a multi-satellite ballistic missile defense system capable of knocking out enemy nuclear missiles aimed at the United States.

“High Frontier,” explained General Graham, would change U.S. strategy “from the bankrupt and basically immoral precepts of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) to a stable and morally defensive strategy of assured survival.”

The Heritage study found a receptive audience in the Oval Office, as President Ronald Reagan had been dissatisfied with America’s reliance on a MAD policy and often pressed scientific and military experts to come up with an alternative. Knowing of the president’s long-standing interest, White House aides, led by presidential counselor Ed Meese, met several times to discuss missile defense, including the High Frontier program.

On Jan. 8, 1982, the informal missile defense group met with Reagan in the Roosevelt Room. Originally scheduled for 15 minutes, the meeting lasted for almost an hour. One participant said that the president’s eyes lit up during the presentation. By the end, Reagan directed the National Security Council staff to develop a proposal for “a strategic defense initiative.”

And so, on March 23, 1983, the president announced that the development and deployment of a comprehensive anti-ballistic missile system would be his top defense priority—his “ultimate goal.” He called it the Strategic Defense Initiative, although it was derided as “Star Wars” by detractors. The New York Times called the initiative “a pipe dream, a projection of fantasy into policy.”

Ed Feulner saw it differently. He said the “Star Wars” epithet backfired because the Star Wars films—two of the seven had then been produced—were among the most popular movies ever produced and reflected the American penchant for amazing technological feats.

Most Americans, Feulner suggested, reason that “if we can put a man on the moon in a decade, why can’t we put an anti-missile defense in space in the same time?”

The Soviets thought we could. A top Soviet scientist recalled that SDI put the Soviet military “in a state of fear and shock.” The head of Soviet strategic analysis told the Politburo that “not only could we not defeat SDI, SDI defeated all our possible countermeasures.”

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev understood the critical importance of SDI and tried repeatedly at his four summits with Reagan to block its development and deployment. Every time, the president stood firm, regarding SDI as a cornerstone of his Peace through Strength strategy.

Finally, Gorbachev conceded that the Soviet Union could not compete with the United States in an arms race, and he agreed to end the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield.

Many factors, strategic, economic, and political, entered into the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War, the longest war of the 20th century.

But historians are agreed that one of the most salient was Reagan’s unflinching commitment to a strategic initiative dismissed by liberals as “Star Wars” and that had its birth at a news conference hosted by the president of the Heritage Foundation and the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Lee Edwards is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation's B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics.