Thanks to Ronald Reagan, when madmen like Kim Jong-un threaten to attack us with “merciless strikes,” we can do something about it. March 23 is the 34th anniversary of President Reagan’s televised speech to the nation in which he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, his vision to make the world safe from nuclear weapons by building missile defenses. If we had not started then, we would not have defenses now. Reagan didn’t call it “Star Wars.” It was Senator Ted Kennedy, who took the title from the now iconic 1977 space opera, suggesting the president’s idea was pure science fiction.
Thirty-four years later and missile defense is now an operating component of the nation’s defenses. That’s good, because missile defenses are needed as part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with unpredictable leaders like the lunatic from North Korea and for dealing with other threats as well.
For those who are not defense wonks, here is a slice of popular culture to get you up to speed on the how and why of missile defense. We have made movie lists before on the dangers of nuclear war and the Cold War. But here to mark the anniversary is a special list of films for those interested in the history of hitting a bullet with a bullet—the story of shooting down nuclear weapons before they go boom.
6. Things to Come (1936)
Even before we knew nuclear weapons could be the end of us all, Hollywood starting making films about it. This 1936 classic based on an H.G. Wells novel offered a big hint. After a decades-long war that uses weapons that seem strangely like atomic bombs, scientists lead the way in trying to rebuild civilization. For its time, the special effects were cutting-edge and the art design and lighting are still mesmerizing. Many scoffed that the film seemed unimaginably unrealistic. Few thought that a year later, after 60 million people died in World War II and mushroom clouds sprouted over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
An American military journalist sent to Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference (negotiations between Truman, Churchill, and Stalin to wrap up World War II) is drawn into a murder investigation. The backdrop of this film noir is the outbreak of the Cold War. At Potsdam, Truman casually mentioned that the U.S. planned to use the atomic bomb against Japan, not knowing that Stalin’s spies had followed the U.S. program all along and the Soviets were super serious about building a nuclear missile arsenal of their own.
Hitting cinemas as the Cold War got particularly heated and the fear of nuclear war spread to main streets around the world, this film hit a nerve with audiences worldwide. A cinematic effort that started as a short documentary on the horrors of atomic warfare and the bombing of Hiroshima evolved into this unusual movie portraying the aftermath of an affair between a French actress filming an anti-nuclear war film and a married architect. Each offers different perceptions on the devastating attack and dangers of a nuclear future.
Not knowing the collapse of the Soviet Union was around the corner, in the 1980s people wanted to do more to prevent nuclear war than just threatening mutual assured destruction—where if either side started a war everybody died. This was one of several films and television mini-series that popped up during the Reagan era on the nuclear war outbreak theme. The docu-drama tells the story of a showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that leads to the big one. The movie was made more realistic with cameos from actual reporters like Eric Sevareid of CBS and public figures such as Newt Gingrich. The imagination of filmmakers paralleled real life. Most famously, in the 1983 NATO Able Archer exercise. Worried that Reagan might actually start a nuclear war, the Soviets organized an early-warning intelligence effort to detect signs of a pre-emptive American attack. There was confusion in the Kremlin over whether the NATO exercise was just practice or the start of World War III.
Rather than starting a nuclear war, Reagan was obsessed about making atomic war impossible, a topic covered in Paul Lettow’s Ronald Reagan and his Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Reagan’s idea was that missile defenses would make nuclear weapons useless. Others had other ideas, arguing against missile defense and instead suggesting the U.S. should lead the way in reducing its nuclear arsenal and then other nuclear powers would follow suit. That was the notion in this highly touted documentary. One person took the argument seriously—Barack Obama. He made the road to zero the centerpiece of his nuclear policy. Needless to say, the road to zero was a road to nowhere. Nuclear weapons are as dangerous a threat as ever.
Putting missile defense back at the center of efforts to protect Americans against nuclear threats is the subject of this documentary produced by The Heritage Foundation. Thirty-three minutes is the longest time it would take a ballistic missile fired anywhere in the world to reach the United States. Once a missile is in the air, whether by intent or by accident, there is no practical alternative—other than missile defense—to prevent a lot of people from going up in smoke. Today there is a strong argument that America needs missile defenses more than ever.