In December 1980, the incoming Reagan administration’s defense transition faced the daunting task of reversing years of neglect of our military and particularly our strategic nuclear deterrent, coming into office in the midst of what was known as a “Hollow Army” — a force unable to do its job and implement America’s national security strategy.
Particularly troublesome was going forward with our nuclear deterrent modernization, not only the deployment of our own INF missiles in Europe but finding a means to make more survivable and more capable our land-based missiles, especially with the deployment of what was known as the MX missiles, later to be named the “Peacekeeper “by President Reagan.
To remedy this problem, started a Nuclear Deterrent Congressional breakfast seminar series in 1983 to help Congress to better understand both the 1983 Scowcroft Commission report on strategic deterrent issues, as well as the Reagan administration’s plans for both strategic deterrence and arms control.
Looking back, what did the Reagan strategic nuclear modernization effort accomplish and does this have lessons we could learn for our own efforts today?
First, the Soviet empire was ended. Nearly a billion people around the world were freed from tyranny as the collapse of the Warsaw Pact engendered the spread of liberty almost everywhere. Nuclear weapons were reduced by over 26,000 in the Soviet Union and the United States, to roughly a combined 3000 deployed (in the field) strategic long-range weapons today.
Second, and very importantly, with the end of the Cold War, the Reagan tax, regulation and trade revolution grew the U.S. GDP from $2.8 trillion in 1981 to todays near $20 trillion, a six-fold increase. Similarly, the world’s economy soared from $11.5 trillion in 1981 to today’s $81 trillion, a seven-fold increase. In short, more guns let to a lot more butter!
Third, less appreciated was with the end of the Cold War, our good fortune came to be better appreciated as to what we had really accomplished. As the former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General Larry Welch explained recently the United States ran a perfect nuclear deterrent record for the 70 years of the nuclear age, particularly during the crises of the Cold War, including the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the 1973 Middle East war.
The exact dimensions of what the US nuclear deterrent achieved was best captured by retired Admiral Richard Mies, once the nation’s Strategic Forces commander, in a 2012 essay. Mies explained that between World War I (1914) and the end of World War II (1945), the number of those who died from war ever year averaged one-to-two-tenths of a percent of global population.
For that 30-year period, 90-plus million people perished. Extrapolating into the future, that means 450 million people were saved over the next 30 years thanks to nuclear deterrence.
We know the discovery of the vaccine for polio, and the treatment for tuberculosis, saved literally tens of millions of lives. We honor those heroes who developed those cures. But we we saved the lives of nearly half a billion people, and in ending the totalitarian tyranny of the Soviet Union, we also expanded the opportunity for people everywhere to seek prosperity and liberty.
I was inspired in 1980 to help in a small way make a success of Ronald Reagan’s vision of the end of the Cold War and America’s standing as a City on a Shining Hill. But as the former president said in his farewell address to the nation, each generation must rededicate itself to the preservation of its inherited liberty.
Today, I am lucky to join many Americans — and allies overseas — dedicated to modernizing our nuclear deterrent as the foundational security task we now face, and yes certainly made more difficult for us having failed to keep our deterrent strong for much of the time after the end of the Cold War.
But the message is an inspiring one — saving the lives of untold millions while simultaneously opening up the opportunities of prosperity and freedom we perhaps too often take for granted. That is a task we have undertaken for which we need not apologize to anyone.
Peter Huessy is the director for strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.