Not quite seventeen, this “soldier’s soldier” volunteered to become a Minnesota National Guardsman and received an Anzio battlefield commission in World War II and the Army’s second highest medal for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, in Viet Nam. He led the U.S. and U.N. Forces in Korea and opposed withdrawing U.S. Forces which cost him the Army Chief of Staff post under President Jimmie Carter—an implicit rebuke cast aside when President Ronald Reagan appointed him as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and after his retirement and return to Minnesota into other important posts. President George H.W. Bush awarded Gen. Vessey the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. A life of service with unquestionable integrity.
I’d suggest that you read the Washington Post (Click here.), New York Times (Click here.) and Denver Post (Click here.) for more details and well justified expansive kudos regarding General Vessey’s most impressive career. But these well-articulated reviews treat at best lightly one of his most important contributions, at least from my perspective — his key role in gaining the Joint Chiefs’ undivided support for Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
For an “insider’s” discussion of the evolving political and bureaucratic scene that led up to and included this important contribution, I’d recommend Ronald Reagan’s close counselor and Attorney General Edwin Meese’s memoir, With Reagan: The Inside Story — click here for selected excerpts of interest.
Back up a page or so from where this link opens and you’ll see that High Frontier’s founder, Lt. Gen. Danny Graham, was there in 1981 as the new President and a number of his close advisors were contemplating how to seek an alternative to what the President called the “pell-mell pace” of the nuclear arms race based on the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy, that he hated. He wanted a “Mutual Assured Survival” strategy instead. Click here for Amazon listing for Ed Meese’s book.
Though these discussions continued for the next year or so, the crucially important involvement of the Chairman and Service Chiefs happened in early 1983. Ed Meese reports that the Chairman and members, and especially Admiral James D. Watkins, were most receptive to the idea of giving a new look to a strategy that involved a greater role for defenses — which had been outlawed a decade previously by the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
I had participated in a 1981 Defense Science Board Summer Study led by Tom Reed (another close Reagan White House advisor, former Air Force Secretary and a nuclear weapon designer), which had concluded that a “preferential” defense of Minuteman was more cost-effective (by a factor of two as I recall) than any of the other measures then being considered — but because of the ABM Treaty, that idea went nowhere as had all others since the nation’s first ABM site near Grand Forks, ND was closed immediately after becoming operational in 1974, leaving America completely vulnerable to missile attack no matter how small.
Ed Meese suggests that Admiral Watkins, as the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), was particularly influential in the Chiefs’ deliberations in response to Reagan’s query about these issues. Click here for a transcript of the Admiral’s personal recounting of these events in War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, a thirteen-part PBS series first broadcast in 1989 on the origins and evolution of nuclear competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Admiral Watkins’ views square with most of my personal recollections from this period when I was closely involved with the efforts to deal with the vulnerability of our land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) — including, as just indicated, ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems.
After an extensive discussion of his impressions of the changing political dynamics during his entire watch, Admiral Watkins returned to his views that influenced the deliberations of the Chiefs, their meeting with President Reagan in which they gave there unanimous support to what became his SDI program, and some of the consequences of their important support that ran counter to many in the political community, including among President Reagan’s closest advisors.
I concur with his view that this support from the Chiefs’ 5-to-0 vote probably played the key role in the President’s decision to act immediately rather than study the potential initiative’s role further. (Members other than General Vessey and Admiral Watkins, were Army General Edward C. “Shy” Meyer, Air Force General Charles A Gabriel, and Marine General Robert H. Barrow.)
Of particular interest is Admiral Watkins’ discussion of the briefing he gave the Chiefs on February 3, 1983, which became the essence of Chairman Vessey’s briefing to President Reagan on February 11, 1983 — and which strongly influenced the inclusion in the President’s March 23, 1983 speech that without question led to the SDI program. He reports that the President was taken with the words “to protect our people not avenge them” and directed that these words not be lost in drafting his speech to the American people.
Admiral Watkins noted that the Chairman, he and only a few others were privy to the important section the President was to include in his March 23rd speech, suggested minor changes that were made, and recommended a little more study to determine exactly what would be the focus of the initiative.
Happily — and Admiral Watkins said so — the President did not wait, and the rest is history. He emphasized that the rapid turnaround short-circuited the likely bureaucratic stagnation that would have occurred had not the President directed the new initiative be presented as a fait accompli. Indeed, there is little doubt that the bureaucracy would have studied it to death. Admiral Watkins stated that
“In my opinion, it was a unique presidential act, and probably quite unusual. I’m sure there are other great Presidents in our history that have struck out independently from their own views. Having listened to a lot of people, the President has been thinking about this for a long time. It’s not a hip shot from the President. As I say, there’s a time when confluence of thought comes together and now it takes a leader to say, ‘The timing is right. I’m going to move it. And I feel comfortable with my grounds, I feel comfortable the American people will back this as a basic ideological concept. I feel comfortable that the technology is within grasp in 20 years. I feel comfortable that this gives us new hope.’ What else do you need? That’s what a vision is all about. And he had the guts to step out and do it.”
To which, I say, “Amen!”
And I am proud that, on High Frontier’s 10th anniversary in September 1991, President Reagan gave General Danny Graham and the High Frontier community great credit for its role in setting the stage for this historic initiative. Click here for his telephone call to High Frontier’s celebration.
In those days, I was leading our SDI efforts as SDI Director and we were making great progress during the George H.W. Bush administration, particularly in moving toward a truly cost-effective space-based BMD system, called Brilliant Pebbles, in the context of a Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system. Moreover, Admiral Watkins, then Secretary of Energy, was one of my strongest supporters especially for space-based BMD system concepts. He was very upset when the Congress insisted that the Brilliant Pebbles program be degraded from its technically merited System Demonstration and Validation phase to only a research-only status.
Then, all SDI-friendly days ended with the advent of the Clinton administration on January 20, 1993 — and my last day as SDI Director. As I have previously discussed, those who have been consistently against Reagan’s SDI initiative gained sufficient political power to end — at least for the moment — all serious efforts toward Reagan’s vision and objectives, which would demand that we have effective space-based BMD systems. As the former Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the new Defense Secretary Les Aspin memorably said, they “took the stars out of Star Wars.”
And nothing has since been done to revive such programs, notwithstanding claims that the BMD programs that have continued haltingly are the legacy of the SDI efforts. They are the bureaucratic legacy, but in name only — since nothing has been done to revive the most cost-effective system concepts from the SDI era (or its supporting technology).
Still, there are hopeful signs that a revival may be approaching. Our military leadership is belatedly recognizing that our current BMD systems cannot keep up with the advances of our enemies in threatening our homeland and space systems with ballistic missile attack. And at least some are recognizing the need to return to the concepts that so intrigued President Reagan and led him to walk out of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit because Gorbachev demanded that we kill our space based defense efforts.
I dealt with these issues in some depth in my recent “trilogy” messages leading up to the 33rd anniversary of Reagan’s SDI speech—click here, here, and here for my March 8th, 15th and 22nd messages. Moreover, others are beginning to speak out on this shortfall and the need to build truly effective space-based defenses — e.g., click here for Rebeccah Heinrichs’ August 16, 2016 Space News article that summarizes a recent Hudson Institute study, advocating space based defenses.
If we are successful in righting this sidetrack, we may still reach the objective identified in Admiral Watkins’ concluding thoughts from his 1989 PBS interview referenced above:
“Fifty years from now, I think that the American people and allies will look back and state that no matter what the rationale was for the President’s courageous statement in 1983, that it was better to defend our people than avenge them, that out of that a better world came, and we’re still going to be at peace, providing we keep moving down the road of strategic defense in a logical, evolutionary way, aggressive, going after a product of our strength working against the Soviets’ weakness. And I think the Soviets will respect that.
“I think they can join the game, and that we can begin to focus, then, on other bilateral, multilateral relationships, which can improve the situation around the world, and maybe the enemy of the future will be someone, an irresponsible person, holding a nuclear weapon, which the Soviet Union and the United States can join together and finesse through a defensive system, that says, ‘You ain’t going to make it with that system.’ And so, it no longer can be used for political blackmail and leverage in the world. It’s overtaken by events. It’s an antique to put in your museums now.
“And, sure, we have new problems perhaps in controlling warfare, because now we’re in space, we have space sensors and satellites moving around, and all sorts of things, and manned space stations going around. We’re learning much more about the world we ever learned before, and the outer world. We’re really moving into space in a big way. I think all of that can be a step in the right direction and can bring the United States and Soviet Union together.
I think [we’ll] be there, and I think we’re going to see that as the glue that may have been bound the nations much closer together. That’s my own optimistic outlook. I think it’s that important.”
I share Admiral Watkins’ hopes — they were President Reagan’s, too; and I defended them for five years as President Reagan’s Ambassador and Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks. We actually had the objective nearly in our grasp when then Russian President Boris Yeltsin basically said yes in his January 1992 address to the United Nations General Assembly by proposing that SDI take advantage of Russia’s technology and together we build a joint global defense.
But we muffed that ball in the latter days of the Bush-41 administration and completely abandoned Reagan’s field of play when the Clinton administration declared U.S. allegiance to the MAD doctrine of the Cold War as the “cornerstone of strategic stability.” Terrible regression.
In conclusion, I would emphasize that if we can get back on track this hopeful end can still come to pass. If it does, it never could have happened on Admiral Watkins’ timetable without General Vessey’s leadership that brought the Chiefs together and gave President Reagan the means to move ahead with one of the most important, if not the most important, initiatives of his presidency. I share British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s view (and that of others) that SDI bought an end to the Cold War without firing a shot.
General Vessey . . . ninety-four years well spent!
I, for one, am glad he became a soldier, rather than the Lutheran minister he once considered becoming, and could have been. No doubt he would also have made a fine minister. But I believe he was doing the Lord’s work throughout his life. May God rest his soul.
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