Missile Wars
homethe threatthe technologythe strategydiscussion
web exclusive: MANIFEST DESTINY
an interview with francis fitzgerald

Frances FitzGerald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist, is the author of Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War (2000). Here, in a Web-exclusive interview with FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson, she discusses how George W. Bush's foreign policy owes more to Ronald Reagan than to George Bush the Elder, and suggests that missile defense can be seen as part of a grand vision of American Manifest Destiny, in which U.S. military supremacy is extended into space.

You recently wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books called "George Bush and the World." What is the thrust of the Bush administration's foreign policy, and where does it come from?

Well, first of all, we've not been totally clear about the objectives, but the methods are unilateralism, and also a focus on the uses of force as opposed to diplomacy. One thing that the Bush administration doesn't like is international treaties. So as a result, instead of strengthening the nonproliferation regime, he's gone in for counterproliferation and missile defenses.

There is a determination that America will eternally be the most powerful nation on Earth, and there's much less emphasis on allies. So missile defense is a metaphor for all of this. We don't have it yet, it doesn't exist, but it's a potent metaphor.

And where did this vision, or imperative, of being the most powerful nation on Earth, and not allowing any challenger to rise up, originate?

The first serious mention of it was in Dick Cheney's Defense Department [in the first Bush administration]. The Defense Planning Guide of 1992 sounds very much like the National Security Strategy paper that the Bush administration has recently put out on these points. Obviously, that came from the Pentagon, so they were not dealing with other kinds of issues. But it was about maintaining complete military supremacy, and not allowing any competitors to work their way up. And stopping, by force if necessary, rogue nations from developing nuclear weapons.

You draw attention to the Reagan legacy in the current Bush Pentagon, and foreign policy.

Oh, that's very strong. The legacy from Reagan's administration is from the hard-line part of it, which concentrates, as usual, in the Pentagon. In the first three years of the Reagan administration, when the hard-liners were dominant, it was the first time we saw a rejection of all past practice, since the beginning of the Cold War, on arms control, on negotiations with the Soviet Union, and a massive military build-up, of course. And combined with no negotiations, we were saying, essentially, that the threat of force is really what works in the world.

George Bush Sr. didn't believe in this at all. He was a born and bred diplomat. He very much took the emphasis off this. He did an extraordinary job in the Middle East. He responded, of course, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, but he was always looking beyond that -- beyond throwing Saddam out of Kuwait, and he hoped out of power -- to a sort of comprehensive settlement in the Middle East. And in fact, he succeeded in 1992 in bringing the Israelis and the Palestinians together for the first time. And he also succeeded in closing down the Cold War by essentially propping up the forces of reform in the Soviet Union -- that is, Gorbachev -- and in the end, by an extraordinary, brave and rather radical act of disarmament: two START treaties, withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and South Korea, and so forth. It was really something that has preserved our safety for some time.

The current Bush administration, while it has a number of people from the Bush I administration, has really taken only the hard-liners. What's missing are people like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker. Of course, there is Secretary of State Colin Powell. But the Pentagon is full of the hard-liners from the Reagan administration and the Bush I administration.

And how did that happen?

Well, Dick Cheney had a great deal of influence on the appointments process. And, you know, Rumsfeld was a very old friend of his, for 30 years. Rumsfeld was the one who, as Ford's chief of staff, sort of made himself the secretary of defense, and made Cheney the White House chief of staff, the youngest in history. And their friendship goes all the way back to that time. And there followed Paul Wolfowitz [now deputy secretary of defense], who has been very close to Rumsfeld and others for a long time.

There's a lot of talk about the role of the father in the current Bush administration. But it's as though you're saying, on defense and foreign policy, the father figure here is Reagan, not the biological father.

Oh, I think that's absolutely true. It's also true politically: Reagan is the great political success and Bush I is the failure. So there are many ways -- the political gestures, but also the ideological ways, as insisting on a tax cut, a huge tax cut, and doing what he can to beef up the military budget. It's a direct line. And, in fact, when George W. Bush was talking about missile defenses in, I think it was August of 2000, he practically quoted from Reagan. And for good reason, because I think it was Richard Perle [assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration] who wrote that speech. It wasn't so much a direct quote as it was saying, "We're going to have missile defenses and deep reductions in nuclear weapons."

Invoking the Reagan formula.

That's right. What missile defenses did in Reagan's hands -- you know, only Reagan could have figured this out, the great politician that he was, that he could turn it from a weapon into therapy, this wonderful pacific kind of thing. Saving the world. And that was the way to not only sell it, but to turn himself into this peacenik all of a sudden. And, of course, that's the way missile defense has been sold ever since.

And yet today, when the Bush administration says "missile defense," they mean something completely different, obviously, than the Reagan administration was talking about.


Related Features


Related Links



Right. Because it's much more limited than Reagan's total panacea.

You point out in that New York Review piece that before Sept. 11 missile defense was very high, if not dominant, on the Bush agenda. So what has happened to missile defense since Sept. 11? And does that affect the way it is sold or rationalized?

Well, immediately, it had no effect. The administration went right on and did what it was planning to do. That is, get out of the ABM Treaty and raise the missile defense budget. Now it's changed, merely because it's fallen out of the news. So if you ask somebody about it in the administration now, they tell you the same thing, but, frankly, it's not that important to anybody anymore.

This could be temporary. That is to say, if this war will ever stop -- the war on terrorism, and perhaps the war on Iraq -- then missile defenses may come right back up again. But, you know, the whole logic which the Democrats began to use immediately after Sept. 11 was, "Look, terrorists can do this enormous damage with box-cutters, and bringing nuclear or biological weapons in if they want to, to this country. Why worry about missile defenses?" And the answer was, from the administration, "Well, we worry about every kind of threat. We have to defend against all of them."

Missile defense is dutifully included in the National Security Strategy document that was recently released. It's still an awfully big, ambitious program. A lot of money is going to it, and it has the potential, at least, to be a major issue internationally, when and if it really does move forward as they want it to. So the question I keep coming back to is, what is the real point of missile defense, strategically, for the Bush administration, at this point? What would Paul Wolfowitz or Dick Cheney tell you, in a candid moment, is the real strategic rationale for missile defense right now? Why do they need it?

Well, for example, there's the paper I mention in the New York Review piece -- a document from the National Institute for Public Policy written by a Reagan-era strategic thinker. Now, if you look at that paper, you see virtually everything that's in the Nuclear Posture Review. And there are a couple of paragraphs on missile defenses. Essentially, this paper discounts missile defenses totally as a way to do anything, except for short-range defenses. It's all looking down the road a bit, but within the relevant future, it says that long-range missile defenses could be used to defend our missiles, our ICBMs. Which is, of course, what these were designed to do originally in the 1960s. So the answer is, for serious people, they have discounted it, at least for the foreseeable future.

In Way Out There in the Blue, you say our foreign and defense policy is not about reality, but instead "a matter of domestic politics, history, and mythology." When we're talking about national missile defense today, how can something that doesn't exist, and may never exist, really be part of an actual policy?

It's part of a political policy. That's all. And Reagan figured out how to use it -- and Reagan didn't have to look at the polls. But what the polls have shown is that the American public has always believed, ever since 1947, that it's possible to create a shield against long-range missiles, and nothing anybody can say will convince them otherwise. It just seems counterintuitive that you can't do this. We can put a man on the moon. Why can't we do this?

And it's also tremendously wishful thinking. Because it's not wonderful to think about nuclear annihilation, you know? And therefore, since getting rid of nuclear weapons seems to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, then defending against them must be the solution. If you take a poll tomorrow, that's what you'd find.

I mean, after all, we have something called the "Defense Department."

So is missile defense relevant, politically or strategically?

It was Reagan's political issue. It then became a kind of ideological issue for the Republican Party. And so therefore it's something they pursue even though the public has forgotten about it.

So explain that for me. Why did it become an ideological issue for the Republicans? How did that happen?

Well, first of all, if the issue is raised, it always works. It works for the Republicans, you know.

But secondly, it is a metaphor for this country's ability to defend itself totally from any harm. And to go it alone, really. Not to have to make agreements with other nuclear powers. And also separation from the rest of the world, being special. That's another part of it.

For a long part of our history, we really didn't have to worry about foreign invasion or attacks from abroad, because of the two oceans surrounding us. And that's what is, in a way, special about the United States. It makes it different from any country in Europe, for example, whose long history is that of invasion, conquest, and disaster. You get to America, and you're safe.

And then, of course, when that was no longer the case, when ICBMs were developed during the Cold War, missile defense was a way to deny them their existence. Or render them "impotent and obsolete," in Reagan's phrase.

How does that tie in with what you were saying about the ideology?

Well, let's put it another way. A certain strand of Republican foreign and military policy has been the same since the mid-19th century. That is the Midwestern strain of it. Republicans on the East Coast, like the Democrats, looked toward Europe, and toward countries that were militarily, culturally, economically, on a par, if not their superior. They were internationalists.

Midwesterners hated Europe. They wanted to build a Navy to keep Europe off our shores. But they also wanted to build a Navy because they were looking west to the Pacific to extend American power. It was the extension of Manifest Destiny to the Pacific. Projection of power.

So they were always partisans of the Navy as opposed to the Army. And, of course, when airplanes came along, they became partisans of the Air Force as well.

What's the 21st-century equivalent of building up the Navy in the 19th century?

Space. What's so interesting is that Gen. Daniel O. Graham, who was one of the first promoters of large-scale missile defenses -- he was one of the people who, like Edward Teller, was trying to get the president to adopt missile defenses before 1983. When he wrote his paper on this subject in 1981, in Strategic Review, he went on at length about Alfred Thayer Mahan [who founded the United States Naval War College in 1873], and how space was going to be like the conquest of the seas for the British. The U.S. had dominated the sea and the air, now it would dominate space.

And it was essentially an imperial metaphor. But it's not just a metaphor. He went on at length about this, how it was the actual strategy. And he was really talking about space weapons. He did not see it in a Reagan-specific light.

Meaning, not just defenses, but offensive weapons?

Yes.

Which is an issue today, of course. How do you see that?

It's odd to talk about all this, because none of it exists -- and won't for a very, very long time. But part of this drive to get rid of the ABM Treaty was about putting missile defenses at sea and in space. That's really what they wanted. They didn't want any amendation to the treaty that would permit ground-based defenses.

They're still looking towards space. And all I can see is that this is a huge metaphor. This is an aspiration which comes from way back in American history, from at least the 19th century.

So if missile defense points to space, and it is this great metaphor, and historically it has lent itself to a rhetoric that was used very effectively for domestic politics, why doesn't the Bush administration seem to be talking about space? Why don't they talk about it more?

Well, Gingrich talked about it. And I think, you know, at the moment we're worried rather more solidly on the ground.

Fair enough. And before Sept. 11, of course, Rumsfeld had talked about it, and it did generate a little controversy.

And he didn't just talk about it, he headed a commission on the issues of space, and came out directly for space weaponry to defend our satellites. That was the idea. He didn't specify what he meant by thatan, what kind of technologies he's talking about. Perhaps there's a classified section in which he does, I don't know. But the unclassified version was talking about the possibility someday of a "space Pearl Harbor," when some enemy would attack our satellites.

Would the weaponization of space have the same kind of emotional, psychological appeal to the American public as something like Star Wars did?

Well, I don't think it would, because it would seem offensive. You can threaten everybody, every hour of the day, from space -- that's pretty provocative. So Americans like the idea of a defensive shield. That's what they like. And understandably.

So if they sell it as a defensive thing, it has that old potential. There's something Reaganesque about that.

That's right. Again, Reagan's rhetoric was all about peace. And also about, in this case, you know, American altruism. And that works very well. And, by the way, that was another element of Bush's approach in August of 2000, that we were going to help other nations develop this missile defense.

All of that sounds wonderful. Developed countries, and indeed everybody -- because our satellites are used by everybody -- will depend on space for communications and so forth in such a way that, if these satellites were attacked, it would mean a disaster. Pretty soon, we're not going to know how to operate without them.

It seems like the political debate over missile defense is settled, that basically Bush and the Republicans won.

Well, the politics is about how much money to spend, and whether and when to deploy. Now, we would be spending money on missile defense research even without Reagan. In fact, when Reagan made his speech, we were spending about a billion dollars a year on various technologies that might be of use in that area.

So really, what Reagan and his successors added to this was a whole lot more money annually, plus this rhetoric about deploying something quickly that would defend us, either from all nuclear weapons or from simply one or two ICBMs from rogue states.

And it's the deployment issue that's the real key here. And I think a lot of the passion about that, for the Bush administration, was simply the passion to break the ABM Treaty. And now that's done. So the Bush administration had decided to lock the whole thing in by making some kind of deployment by 2004. And I think they will do it. That is to say, they are now digging holes near Fairbanks, at Fort Greely, Alaska, to put the launchers in for missile defenses. And if the ABM Treaty was still around, that would have broken it definitively and forever. But I think this was the purpose of it initially. They want to say they've deployed something, because again, this is a part of the whole ideology.

Whatever it is that they want to deploy, it'll be something. The fact that it doesn't work is irrelevant.

home · the threat · the technology · the strategy · introduction · map
timeline · producer's chat · interviews · quiz: missile test · discussion
tapes & transcripts · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

photograph © 1996 CORBIS; original image courtesy of NASA/CORBIS
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS