WASHINGTON -- At the Pentagon, where dead heroes are often given elaborate send-offs with full military honors, there was a quiet burial the other day for a program that many claim was a pipe dream and a colossal waste of taxpayers' billions, but others say was instrumental in ending the Cold War.
Secretary of Defense Les Aspin reported that President Ronald Reagan's pet project to build an umbrella of defense in space over the United States against oncoming missiles, formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) but popularly -- or unpopularly -- known as "star wars," was being laid to rest.
Aspin said that research would continue but on a much scaled-back basis, geared not to provide airtight protection against any kind of missile attack as Reagan projected it but toward a limited defense against such threats as a terrorist attack.
A decade and $32 billion after the SDI program was first launched by the Reagan administration, it never got close to the deployment stage and was a favorite target for budget cuts by Democrats who saw it as a gigantic fantasy. It began in 1981 as a concept championed by retired Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Graham called "High Frontier" and was embraced by Reagan in 1983.
Reagan's secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, became a missionary for the program and sought tirelessly to get it out of the research and development stage and into production. But Democrats in Congress continued to ridicule the project and balk, while still funding it at a fairly high level.
The Soviets were clearly troubled about SDI and repeatedly pressed Reagan to abandon it as a super-costly extension of the nuclear arms race. At the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986, near-agreement on sweeping arms reduction was shattered when Reagan refused to bow to Mikhail Gorbachev's demands for limits on "star wars" testing.
The future of SDI also was a centerpiece of the Washington summit in December 1987, with Reagan again refusing to curtail testing, which Gorbachev argued was a violation of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty between the two superpowers. Reagan at one point, in continuing to insist on further testing, said he would share all information with the Soviet Union once the system was perfected, but it never came close to that.
When George Bush succeeded Reagan in the presidency, ever trying to shore up his credentials with the Republican right wing, he continued to be an advocate of the "star wars" idea. But without Reagan's zeal, the program underwent more and more cuts, finally taking a 25 percent bite in 1990.
When communism began to crumble in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union itself, SDI cheerleaders were quick to credit the program. At a recent seminar of the Reagan presidency, in fact, former Attorney General Edwin Meese argued that the sheer expense of SDI, which the Soviets believed they would have to match with a space defense system of their own, was a major factor. When the men in the Kremlin realized that building such a system would bankrupt their empire, Meese suggested, they were persuaded to throw in the sponge.
But it was highly improbable that the "star wars" scheme ever would have been deployed in any effective way. The fact was that the whole concept of space defense had such a Buck Rogers-Flash Gordon quality to it that it had little credibility with the general public. Proponents hoped even after the end of the Cold War that the presence of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons on the soil of the former Soviet republics would keep SDI alive. But with the era of good feeling that came in with the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent events in the old Soviet sphere of influence, they realized the jig was up.
Years from now, historians will still be debating whether Reagan was taken in by a far-fetched Rube Goldberg scheme "to shoot down a bullet with a bullet," as "star wars" was sometimes described, or he used it to intimidate the Soviet Union into bankruptcy.
Either way, SDI played a high-profile role in what proved to be the winding down of the Cold War, without a single missile fired or intercepted in anger.