Several days before he was inaugurated as President in 1981, Ronald Reagan ensconced himself at Blair House, the weathered guest residence across from the White House, and received, one by one, the Republican senators who would lead his battles in Congress.
Among them was one-time astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt of New Mexico.
And what the President-elect had on his mind, Schmitt found, was not political chitchat but research on anti-missile missile systems--the use of lasers and particle beams as space weapons, to be precise. A startled Schmitt recounted what he knew about the arcane subject.
That conversation, coming more than two years before Reagan proposed his "Star Wars" plan to end "the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles," is a measure of how long the President has been attracted to the idea that technology could end the threat of nuclear war. The stunning conclusion of the Reykjavik summit Sunday demonstrated how curiosity has hardened into commitment.
And just as powerfully, the dead end in Iceland reaffirmed the Soviet Union's opposition to a system that many U.S. scientists view with skepticism and that Moscow itself has ridiculed as ineffective and easily outflanked.
Strategic arms experts Monday found several possible explanations for the Soviets' enormous concern over the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), as "Star Wars" is formally known. But as Alton Frye, Washington director of the Council on Foreign Relations, said: "Any simple explanation is inadequate."
Three Possible Reasons
Frye and others suggested three major reasons for the Soviet insistence that testing of "Star Wars" technology should be confined to the laboratory for 10 years, a demand that the U.S. side said would cripple development of the system:
--A concern that a successful "Star Wars" research and development program could, in Frye's words, "point toward resurrection of U.S. strategic superiority."
--Anxiety that the Soviets would be forced to offset "Star Wars" with new strategic weapons programs, thus diverting resources from urgent domestic needs to which Gorbachev wishes to give high priority.
--Worries that the new space technology might produce breakthroughs with far-reaching impact on conventional warfare.
"The Soviet Union has tremendous respect for U.S. technology," said R. James Woolsey, who has advised both Republican and Democratic administrations on strategic arms issues. He continued:
"They look upon the two countries rather like the tortoise and the hare. They remember the development of the atomic bomb and the Apollo flights to the moon. They realize that when we wake up to technical challenges, we can be very dangerous, and that scares them."
For years, U.S. doctrine held that strategic defenses only created instability in the balance of nuclear forces because the possessor of a sound defense might be able to launch an attack without fear of retaliation. But Reagan's "Star Wars" program took the country onto a drastically different course.
The firm believers foresee a day when a variety of land- and space-based high-tech weapons--laser beams as well as anti-missile missiles--will be able to attack enemy ballistic missiles throughout their flights, from their first moments after launch to their mid-course journey above the earth's atmosphere and to their descent to their targets.
Many of the country's pre-eminent scientists have attacked the "Star Wars" program on technical and financial grounds. They have branded it as an illusory groping for a population defense that is impossible for the foreseeable future.
Still, in the last year, hardware experiments conduced by the United States have included accomplishments touted as testament that the necessary defense systems are within reach.
Laser Destroys Rocket
A chemical laser destroyed a Titan I booster rocket simulating a Soviet intercontinental missile. Another ground-based laser succeeded in tracking a rocket on its way into space.
And just a month ago, two satellites launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., tracked each other around the Earth in orbit, then tracked a small rocket rising from White Sands missile range and finally destroyed each other in a controlled collision.
Such successes notwithstanding, Congress has taken an increasingly skeptical view of "Star Wars" research. It is on the verge of approving another $3.5 billion for the current year--$500 million more than last year but $1.8 billion less than the President requested.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), one of Congress' most influential members on defense matters, warned that congressional scrutiny of the program will be sharper than ever.
The controversy over "Star Wars" at home caused some observers to suggest another reason for the Soviets to condition their entire arms control proposal in Iceland on a U.S. retreat from the program.
'Had Divisive Issue'
"They knew they had a divisive issue, and they succeeded in focusing all the attention on it," said P. Edward Haley, director of the Keck Center for International Studies at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. The Soviet objective, he suggested, was to bring about delay and division and, ultimately, to diminish the Strategic Defense Initiative program.
Historically, the Soviets have made massive investments in defensive systems. In recent years, they have modernized their missile defense system around Moscow and have continued to invest billions of rubles each year in anti-aircraft systems.
Their new anti-aircraft missiles are understood to have some ability to defend against ballistic missiles. In addition, they have built a massive new radar in Siberia almost universally described by American arms experts as a violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
They have also invested for years in research on some of the same systems, such as lasers, included in the U.S. "Star Wars" program.
Competitive With U.S.
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former State Department Soviet expert, said the Soviets are believed to be competitive with the United States in some technologies applicable to ballistic missile defense, such as lasers. In others, such as information processing and handling, a major technical challenge for "Star Wars" researchers, they are believed to be years behind.
When Gorbachev came to power 18 months ago, the Soviets had achieved effective parity with U.S. offensive weapons. And in the view of some analysts, he shared the common Western view that nuclear stability served his interests more effectively than an unending quest for advantage.
But a workable "Star Wars" program--and Gorbachev, according to Western analysts, has a nagging conviction that "Star Wars" could potentially block at least a percentage of Soviet missiles--confronted him with the prospect that the United States would gain the edge.
Promised Better Times
Beyond that, Gorbachev took power with a promise of better times ahead for beleaguered Soviet consumers. He gave high priority to boosting his country's agricultural and manufacturing production--a pledge that would collide with a need to bolster offensive weapons to offset any advantage conferred upon the United States by "Star Wars."
Both Sonnenfeldt and Woolsey suggested that the Soviets' real concern about "Star Wars" technology may be the potential fallout from a weapons research and development program on such a scale.
"They have sent out very mixed signals on SDI all along," Sonnenfeldt said. "But their most tangible concern seems to be over the broad advance in technology that it will give to the West. Even though their scientists tell them that SDI can be offset, they don't know that, and I think they are very uneasy."
An example of their concern, Woolsey said, is a fear that advances in computer and sensor technology could have direct applicability to Western armored forces, which are heavily outnumbered by tanks of the Warsaw Pact forces in Europe.
"Star Wars" supporters and opponents agree that research and development in fields such as sensors, high-energy lasers and kinetic energy weapons would go on even if the SDI program itself is bargained away.