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Reagan's 'Star Wars' speech

Well, first it was a 'nuclear freeze' as against the 'zero option' and now it's an alternative, the 'limited deployment of intermediate-range warheads' and if the new proposal has no other virtue, it's impossible to jazz it up into an acronym or a catchword to set us all marching behind banners with scary devices.

But I want to talk about another alternative, or rather an alternative role the president keeps playing with baffling frequency. One day he's the screaming eagle and the next he's a purring dove. These quick-change roles can best be illustrated by two speeches the president made in the past week or two which express a puzzling or maybe two puzzling sides to his character.

First, let me say that whatever else he is, Mr Reagan is not a sinister character, nothing remotely as shivering and calculating as he appears in the puppet shows and horrendous caricatures paraded by the unilateralists and others who claim a monopoly on sincerity and peacemongering.

Mr Reagan, even in the Congress, which amounts to 535 humans of every known character and idealogical flavour, has no enemies. I can't remember a president in my time or before that you could say that about. He's so amiable, so personally genial and thoughtful, that there are Democrats who've resolved not to accept social invitations to the White House for fear of being infected and debauched by the president's sunny and beguiling manner.

I said just now that he's not a calculating man. That's one of his troubles. Even his closest aides, his 'Kitchen Cabinet' in the White House wish he were more calculating but between one day and the next, between a happy morning meeting in the White House and an evening speech somewhere off in the country, Mr Reagan, having given everybody the idea that he's going to play it cool on this policy or that, then appears in Florida or Texas or wherever and starts to exhale fire and brimstone, or worse, to come out hot against sin. The 'Star Wars' speech and the Darth Vader' speech are rather frightening examples of this Jekyll and Hyde impersonation.

Darth Vader, any toddler who happens to be lying about the house will tell you, was the leader of the empire in the movie 'Star Wars'. So, the Darth Vader speech – and that's what, for convenient filing, the White House calls it – was the one the president gave before that throbbing audience of evangelicals in Florida in which he called the Soviet Union 'the evil empire run by godless men'. After he'd left Florida, with the applause still tingling in his ears, Mr Reagan was astonished to read and hear that the speech and most of all the characterisation of the Soviet Union was deplored, of course, abroad, but all around the United States.

Then, whether by accident or design but I'd guess by the natural trend of his character to make impulsive amends, he made what they call his 'Star Wars' speech. That was the one in which he foresaw and even proposed a one-billion-dollar-a-year development programme to ditch the present Soviet-American system of deterrents by massive retaliation and go to an anti-ballistic system which would have laser beams pinpointing and exploding way up in the sky any missiles the enemy cared to launch.

There's no doubt, I think, that the president thought of this as a friendly suggestion. A day or two later he went so far as to say that once the thing was perfected, he'd be happy to share it with the Soviets provided, I imagine, they are prepared to wait so long. The president says it may take till the end of the century or beyond before we've got this trick in perfect shape.

By the way, no responsible scientist who's been heard from will guarantee that it will ever be perfected.

So now, the Russians – Mr Andropov, that's to say – responded to both speeches, to the nasty one and the nice one, in a single breath which is not surprising. Call a man the leader of an evil empire of a country also described as the focus of evil in the world and you shouldn't be surprised if he comes back and calls you a liar and a lunatic! And just for the record, I also can't recall any Russian leader at any time calling any American president a liar let alone a lunatic.

Then, having vented his proper spleen, Mr Andropov got down to the substance of the Star Wars proposal. He said it violated the 1972 Soviet-American anti-ballistic missile treaty. Mr Reagan had anticipated this move. Not so, he said. The United States was not testing or manufacturing such things yet.

You may wonder, as I did, whether this treaty is distinct and separate from the first SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) of the same year. No matter. I finally dug out the text, or rather the Fifth Article, of that first SALT treaty and this is what it says:

'Each party undertakes not to develop, test or deploy anti-ballistic missile systems or components which are sea-based, air-based, space-based or mobile land-based.' Well, Mr Reagan is offering to develop, at least, an anti-ballistic missile system, assuming a laser is a missile, that is space-based. Clearly, wouldn't you say, Mr Andropov is correct? A conclusion we shouldn't be hesitant about, even if Mr Andropov is Darth Vader.

Faced with what I should think was an unanswerable fact, there are people, even defence experts who say, 'Yes, but, er... you can't trust the Russians to abide by anything'. Well, if that's so then there's surely no point in signing any treaties with them or holding any talks. The American people, so far as I can read the entrails, are divided on how to respond to both the Darth Vader and the 'Star Wars' speech and I don't mean divided into two opposing blocks, I mean divided within themselves.

From every source of tapping public opinion, it appears that most Americans do believe that the Russians have not changed their old aim of world domination or, as the conservative columnist William F. Buckley puts it, 'Mr Reagan does well to remind us that we are dealing with men explicitly bound to the proposition that the morality of advancing world revolution overrides any other morality'.

Well, again, I believe most Americans would go along with this – they did go along with it in the war against Hitler – if they did not believe and fear that any conceivable war with the Russians would in fact not prevent the nation from perishing, but would hasten its doom. So my guess, based not on a hunch, but on all the available surveys, is that the Americans, and they're surely not alone, do believe that the Soviets want to dominate the world, do believe that the Russian people don't want a war to prove it, do believe that at the end of such a war, most of us would be dead and the rest would be neither dead nor red. So, even though the Russian leaders may be very wicked, most Americans want to go on talking with them.

In fairness to Mr Reagan, I have to quote something he said which was assuredly not quoted in Tass or, I'd bet, in any other Soviet publication. 'Our nation, too,' he said, 'has a legacy of evil with which it must deal.' I hope he meant by this what the Pope meant when he inaugurated, a week ago, the Holy Year of Redemption and knelt at the threshold of the holy door at St Peter's to signify that he, too, is a sinner. But I fear that Mr Reagan was still thinking about Communism, though its presence in the United States must be minuscule. For between the Darth Vader speech and the 'Star Wars' speech, the president issued an extraordinary comment on the budget proposals which the Democrats have handed down and which, most notably, cut the rate of growth of the president's defence budget. Mr Reagan called this Democratic document 'a dagger aimed at the heart of the nation and a joy to the Kremlin'.

To go on piling up the record of astonishing firsts, I'd better say too, that I don't remember any president ever accusing the whole opposing party of being 'a joy to the Kremlin'. What's gotten into him? was the despairing mutter in the House corridors. Speaker Tip O'Neill retaliated by saying that the president was reverting to the tactics of the late Senator McCarthy.

This was not pleasant to talk about especially at a time when so many allies – Germany, France, Australia – have just had elections and when Britain is girding up for one, when, in effect, important friends are shuffling into position and would be immensely relieved to feel that they knew fairly precisely where the United States stood in its foreign policies. It's no consolation to them to be told that there was much head shaking in the State Department after the Florida – the Darth Vader – speech and complaints that it had not been cleared in the State Department.

The fact is that the president does not compose his speeches by checking with government departments beforehand. He relies, after talking things over with three or four old advisers, on two young men, one 39, the other 34. The 39-year-old is the temperate one, useful to calm any fears that might be generated by the prose of the 34-year-old, Mr Tony Dolan – an ideological whiz-kid who falls just short of adoration of his boss, he was the one who drafted the Darth Vader speech which, and we can only thank God, even the president found too hot and heavy and himself toned down. If the empire of evil is an example of toning down, heaven knows what we, and Mr Andropov, were saved from.

Mr Reagan's biographer, a journalist who's known him for 16 years and who's written an engrossing and singularly detached book, wrote about him that, when he became governor of California, he was also very ignorant of state issues and state politics at the start and also given to great soaring flights of rhetoric, based, on what the writer calls, 'his basic, optimistic simplicity' which was, at the beginning of his presidency, too, 'the source of his appeal' and that would also prove the source of his administration's most glaring inadequacies. In California, Mr Reagan learned a lot and developed what his biographer calls 'a proclivity for doing what is necessary at the expense of his rhetoric'.

Well, for the rest of his term, I'm sure that millions of people who want the United States to be a responsible and benevolent leader of the West – the Europeans especially – will hope and pray that sooner than later the president will trust to that 'proclivity for doing what is necessary at the expense of his rhetoric?'

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

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