The most dangerous movie ever made

Reagan called on scientists to create a shield that would protect the USA from nuclear attack
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ronald Reagan unwittingly wrote the best epitaph for his own political career in the last year of his presidency. He had run for the Oval Office as a man who would never cut deals with terrorists, but then in 1987 it emerged that he had done just that by trading American hostages for hardcore weaponry. He said in a televised broadcast: "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me this is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."

Ronald Reagan unwittingly wrote the best epitaph for his own political career in the last year of his presidency. He had run for the Oval Office as a man who would never cut deals with terrorists, but then in 1987 it emerged that he had done just that by trading American hostages for hardcore weaponry. He said in a televised broadcast: "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me this is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."

There we have the man. His heart said one thing; the facts said the opposite. I'm sure his heart told him that - as he endlessly declared - when government is small, the "little guy" gets ahead. The facts tell us that when you dismantle public services and hack away at progressive taxation, poor people become even less likely to get to the top. I'm sure his heart told him that if you slash back "big government", the economy will grow more quickly and everybody will be a winner. The facts tell us Reaganite supply-side economics have never worked and simply rack up debt (over a trillion dollars in Reagan's case) for future generations.

This is not simply a matter for the history books, a dry dispute over a dead president. The myths Reagan promoted are alive. If people begin to believe that, for example, Reagan's policies really did help "the little guy" rather than the über-rich, this trick of the historical memory will deface politics across the world for decades. Social democratic governments from Brazil to Germany are already being encouraged to slash programmes on the basis of these delusions. A mythologised Reagan will be wielded by conservatives as a weapon for many decades to come; we must not allow this picture to settle into the public mind unchallenged.

Perhaps the best way to understand the delusions at the heart of Reaganism is to look at one of his most enduring policy legacies: the "Star Wars" National Missile Defence (NMD) programme, which is still burning up shovel-loads of cash today thanks to his spiritual son George W. Bush's administration. The Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Frances Fitzgerald documents the affair in her book Way Out There in the Blue. The story she and other historians of NMD tell is so odd that you have to cross-check source after source to be convinced that it really happened.

Reagan often stirred ideas from his movies into his politics. His best known catch-phrase, "Win one for the Gipper", was based on his role in Knute Rockne, All American. After he told the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1986 that he had been present at the liberation of Auschwitz - even though he did not leave California for the duration of the war - he explained that he had been thinking of a film he nearly made. (He later repeated the claim to the Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal).

In 1940, Reagan starred in a movie called Murder in the Air, in which he created a new super-weapon called the "Inertia Projector", which paralysed all incoming enemy craft and missiles. A navy admiral tells Reagan's character the weapon "not only makes the United States invincible in war but, in doing so, promises to be the greatest force for world peace ever discovered". Fast-forward 43 years. From the Oval Office, Reagan astonishes even his own West Wing staff when he says in a live speech: "I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete."

NMD was born in that moment. Reagan called on scientists to create a "nuclear shield" that would protect the continental United States and her allies from attack. Any Soviet nuke fired at the US should, he said, be detected by US lasers and shot off into space. This would end the madness of a nuclear stand-off and save the world. It was classic Reagan: a beautiful, idealistic idea, expressed in clear homespun prose - and total fantasy.

Even the president's aides noticed the similarity between Murder in the Air and Reagan's speech. Leading scientists believed the proposal was preposterous. No such lasers exist, nor could they. They would have to be able to be 100 per cent successful at detecting and shooting away up to 20,000 incoming nuclear missiles; and the land-based stations that provided a base for the lasers across the world would also have to be invulnerable to attack. It was an idea so fantastical that it makes Iraq's WMD seem as real as if they were on permanent display in a glass case outside Downing Street. Star Wars was a fitting name, because the project is pure science fiction.

Yet the Pentagon - always eager for extra funding - began to talk as if the plan was plausible. Computer animations on the leading news bulletins awed Americans. Opinion poll support for creating "Star Wars" rose to 80 per cent; today, 40 per cent of Americans believe it already exists. Even the Soviets began to panic, thinking that it was impossible the US could be involved in such a gigantic and surreal error.

Independent American scientists who laughed in derision were reproached by Reagan, who said: "I say in this great land anything is possible if we try hard enough." The administration claimed that if enough money was spent on a project, eventually it would become possible. They should perhaps have studied the history of alchemy. Until the 17th century more resources were dedicated to the "science" of turning lead into gold than any other experimental pursuit.

NMD has been just as effective. After 20 years and $200bn of investment, the technology still doesn't work. Even rigged "tests" over the past few years have humiliatingly failed, to the embarrassment of President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Scientists now routinely refer to the problem of "trying to shoot away one bullet with another bullet", and admit it is impossible to construct a reliable way of achieving this. Reagan's arguments are once again exposed for what they are: inspirational husks and ornate delusions. Yet Bush is not discouraged; hundreds of millions of dollars are allocated for "further research".

Almost every one of Reagan's policies can be deconstructed in this way. There is a consistent pattern: warm, fuzzy bromides from the president mutated into delusional public policy. Fantasy is at the core of Reaganism. It is perhaps forgiveable that one old man believed these myths, especially since, as his official biographer Edmund Morris explains, he was so demented by 1986 - with two years in the White House to go - that his staff considered invoking the part of the constitution pertaining to mental incapacity. The rest of us have no such excuse.

Reaganism is spoken of now in such hushed tones because its myths are very comforting to the ultra-rich, who shape American (and, increasingly, European) public debate by buying our politicians and owning our media. The Rupert Murdochs and Lockheed Martins cannot argue blatantly that tax cuts should be lavished on a tiny elite, or that billions should be spent on their ineffective arms programmes. Far better if the American public is soothed by a sweet old man into believing that the tax cuts help Joe America, and that trillion-dollar arms programmes will magically shoot enemy nukes off into space.

It is not only Ronald Reagan who should be buried today; it is the discredited corpse of Reaganism.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

Comments