Pledging to "make America great again," President Reagan carried enough Republican candidates on his popular coattails to win control of the Senate for his party. Reelected by a landslide vote in 1984, he was superbly well positioned to maintain a contentious posture vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, which he denounced with ideological fervor as an "evil empire." He and a kaleidoscopically shifting cast of senior advisers perceived a mortal U.S. disadvantage in strategic armament. The deficit arose primarily from the Soviet Union's greater aggregate "throw-weight," that is, the sheer tonnage of destructive power its missiles could deliver to targets in the United States and NATO countries. This simplistic measure of relative capability was used by the Reagan administration to warn of a "window of vulnerability" through which the United States could be devastated by a preemptive Soviet first strike.
To redress the Soviet Union's ostensible "margin of superiority," Reagan instructed the Pentagon to disregard budgetary restrictions and request whatever weapons it wanted. He goaded Congress to fund accelerated development and deployment of the B-1 bomber, the neutron bomb, the B-2 "stealth bomber," the Trident-II SLBM, the MX and cruise missiles, and mobile Minuteman ICBM launching sites. Thus fortified, President Reagan, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. "Cap" Weinberger undertook arms-reduction talks with the Soviet Union. The Reagan cohort would extort Soviet concessions by using the revived arms race to strain the creaking Soviet economy.
The Reagan administration soon was managing several approaches to strategic security in the wake of the inherited SALT II failure: a rapid buildup of strategic and conventional capabilities; negotiations in 1981 to limit intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF); the opening of talks on a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1982; and research into space-based antiballistic missile defenses. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), announced in March 1983 and derisively dubbed "Star Wars" by its opponents after the hit science-fiction movie, was an ambitious scheme to put laser-firing satellites into low orbit around the earth. These "killer satellites," assisted by a complex system of ground-based tracking radars, would intercept and destroy ICBMs at the height of their trajectory outside the earth's atmosphere. The program was projected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and it relied on future development of problematical new technologies. Domestic opposition based on cost, feasibility, and SDI's contravention of the ABM Treaty remained strong throughout Reagan's presidency.
In 1981, Reagan had suggested a "zero sum" option for tactical nuclear weapons that the Soviet Union promptly rejected. The president promised that NATO would refrain from deploying any American cruise missiles if the Soviet Union eliminated the ballistic missiles it had aimed at western Europe, including existing systems that had never been on the negotiating table before. This suggestion that the Soviet Union scrap extant missiles to preclude American deployment of systems that as yet were in the planning stage dumb-founded Soviet leaders. In November 1983 they broke off the INF discussions.
The U.S. arms buildup continued during a two-year hiatus in negotiations, as did NATO's planning for deployment of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. The inhabitants of NATO nations and other European countries did not wholeheartedly accept the alliance's decision to place additional U.S. tactical nuclear forces in Europe as counters to Soviet SS-20s, SS-5s, and SS-4s. Street protests erupted in the Federal Republic of Germany and the Netherlands, while parliaments and citizens across Europe reacted with alarm. Any Soviet attempt to turn these apparent fissures in NATO to negotiating advantage was foredoomed by a rapid succession of top leaders in Moscow. President Brezhnev had died in 1982, his successor, Yuri Andropov, in 1984, and Andropov's heir a year later.
Negotiations based on versions of Reagan's 1981 zero sum languished until Mikhail Gorbachev became the new secretary general of the Communist Party in March 1985. Relatively young at age fifty-four, and refreshingly dynamic in contrast with the typical Soviet apparatchik, Gorbachev was absolutely determined to liberalize the Soviet political system ( glasnost ), reform the economy ( perestroika ), and reduce expenditures for arms, especially nuclear missile systems. According to Michael K. Deaver, who served as Ronald Reagan's personal adviser for twenty years, the president sensed in Gorbachev a kindred spirit. "With Gorbachev, Reagan could do business, and business they would do, eliminating entire classes of nuclear weapons and paving the way for the literal collapse of arguably the greatest enemy we have ever faced." In three separate summit meetings between 1985 and 1987, this unique rapport greatly facilitated negotiations—up to a point. At the October 1986 meeting in Reykjavík, Iceland, the two heads of state came tantalizingly close to agreement on sweeping reductions in nuclear armaments and withdrawal of all American IRBMs from Europe. But things came unstuck when Gorbachev told Reagan, "All this depends, of course, on your giving up SDI." The president reacted with extreme defensiveness, and the meeting collapsed.
START was paralyzed, but all was not lost. The less glamorous INF talks had been revived by Reagan and Gorbachev, and in 1987 the two superpowers signed a treaty that for the first time eliminated an entire class of existing weapons. On-site inspections would verify the elimination of all Soviet and American land-based, intermediate-range, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. There is debate as to how much the treaty actually lowered the nuclear threat. Both the Soviet and American intermediate-range nuclear forces by that time were becoming obsolete, and each side already was working on new systems. The INF treaty's successful conclusion, on the other hand, signaled that the two powers were ready to resume cooperation in arms control, and that they recognized a mutual need to maintain strategic stability. Gorbachev deserves credit for his flexibility and imagination in breaking the stalemate. He understood that he could not hope to match a U.S. arms buildup when his own domestic economy was on the verge of implosion. Reagan, too, deserves plaudits. In May 1988 he won Senate approval of the INF treaty by a vote of 93 to 5. Six months later, Reagan's phenomenal popularity helped elect his understudy to the presidency.