• U.S.

The Presidency: The Alternative Is So Terrible

6 minute read
Hugh Sidey


Presidents almost never talk openly about how it might be to face a nuclear salvo from the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan did last week. “Think of it,” he said in a low voice, seated in front of a wood fire in the calm of the Oval Office. “You’re sitting at that desk.” He pointed across the room at his working chair. Only the muted crackling of burning logs and the tick of the old grandfather clock broke the silence. Reagan’s eyes were squinted, his brow tense. “The word comes that they’re (the missiles) on their way. And you sit here knowing that there is no way, at present, of stopping them. So they’re going to blow up how much of this country we can only guess at, and your only response can be to push the button before they get here so that even though you’re all going to die, they’re going to die too.”

It was over. Reagan stopped, and there was a long silence. He had asked the question of himself that journalists usually ask of all Presidents. Could they push the button? And all Presidents have been quick to say they could–but none convincingly.

The question was left hanging in the air. Reagan does not know the answer. Nobody does. He let his imagination go to the brink of the unthinkable in order to dramatize his distress over the nuclear doctrine of the Soviet Union and the U.S. Their mutual safety depends on their mutually assured destruction. “There’s something so immoral about it,” he said quietly.

That is the rock on which he has founded his idea for Star Wars, a defense against missiles that theoretically could render an attack so uncertain that both superpowers would come to their senses and end the nuclear arms race. The idea is not likely to vanish despite political resistance and military and scientific doubts about its feasibility.

“After World War I, all sorts of rules were made about war and the protection of civilians. And here we are, all these years later, and the principal weapon on both sides is a weapon that is designed mainly to kill millions of civilians with no discrimination–men, women and children. How do we think that we’re more civilized today when our peacemaking policy is based on the threat that if they kill our people, we’ll kill theirs?”

Theodore Roosevelt’s gold Nobel Peace Prize from 1906 gleamed under a spotlight just a few steps beyond the door to the Oval Office. There are similarities between the two men. Early in his public life, Teddy was as bellicose as they come, but he ended up a peacemaker.

History, Reagan believes, teaches that timidity is dangerous. Woodrow Wilson’s “watchful waiting” before the first World War, he says, may have led to our involvement. “The election slogan for their second campaign was ‘He kept us out of war.’ But (later) we realized that maybe we got in that war because that policy made the enemy think they could do anything and Wilson wouldn’t fight . . . I think Ike brought about the armistice in Korea with a quiet little leak that we just might consider a change in weaponry, meaning we might loose that thing we had loosed once before (an atom bomb). Almost overnight we went to an armistice table.”

Gunslinger? Saber rattler? The accusation pains the President. But he is convinced that the Soviets went back to Geneva because they felt it was finally in their interest. “We had unilaterally disarmed so over the years that there wasn’t any reason for the Soviet Union to give in . . . We are showing a determination to maintain a national defense policy. They hadn’t seen that before. And I think they knew that we were looking at them realistically, and then I think the crowning thing was our going forward with research to see if there was a defensive weapon.”

But if the idea has taken hold that Reagan is now ready to rush around the world to seek a summit with his Soviet counterpart, forget it. “I don’t think there’d be any point in just having a get-acquainted meeting,” said Reagan. “No, I’ve never been to (the Soviet Union). Looking out the window (of the White House) at all this snow, I’d rather pick a better place (than Russia)– like the Bahamas.”

Nor did the President take back any of his tough statements of a couple of years ago (an evil empire that reserves the right “to lie, to cheat”). “I think all those served a purpose. In the past we’ve dealt with them on a mirror-image basis–that, well, gee, they’re just like us. And if they see that we’re nice, why, they’ll be nice too. I thought it was time that we (talked straight).”

There is much of the poker player about Reagan, sitting there across the table and trying to figure out what is going on behind the other player’s eyes. “They have to have a pretty healthy respect for our technology and our industrial might. They’ve been behind once, when we were the only ones that had the weapon. They didn’t like it.”

Reagan holds his Star Wars card with relish. But there is no threat in his voice; there never is. The Soviets do not seem to understand that. Reagan may sense their concern.

He continued: “All we’re doing is research. And if they really mean it about wanting to eliminate the threat of these weapons and if research can bring us the idea of a weapon that makes these others obsolete, then it’s good for them and good for us . . . I wish that they would go forward with the same thing themselves because if both of us knew that we could stop the other fellow’s missiles we wouldn’t have to have them any more.”

Peace, real peace with the absence of the hideous nuclear threat. That dream hangs out there beyond the fingertips of this President as it has all the others. It seems sometimes to recede just about the moment a President thinks it is in his grasp. Yes, he said, once the new negotiations begin he will concentrate heavily on arms control. “There will be constant communication about what is being said,” Reagan declared. “And decisions will have to be made about what is a fair trade or not. My one principle about the talks is that we will not send negotiators over there and say, ‘At whatever price, get an agreement.’ “

Something stirs in this 40th President despite all his caution and his continuing tough-guy stance. He is asked the chances of being remembered as a peacemaker. “Well,” he replied, “I have to hope that they’d be pretty good because the alternative is so terrible to think of.”

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