Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Man of Ideas and a Safer World

This fellow was born more than a century ago. Not born to a wealthy family. Didn't get the chance to go to a fancy school. And he changed the world.

The morning paper says "Pentagon to deploy missile interceptors on West Coast ... to warn China to rein in North Korea." What an amazing thing that is. Even more amazing, is that we have a former California governor, who became President of the United States, to thank for this.

Ronald Reagan wasn't an engineer or a scientist. Ronald Reagan's missile shield was a creative concept that came from his ability to look at old things in a new way. People of big ideas do not all come from the Ivy League. Some come from humble little towns in Illinois.

As president and Commander in Chief, Ronald Reagan discovered that he had one alternative in case of a nuclear attack from the Soviets. The only defense propogated by the Pentagon for forty years had been a little concept called "Mutually Assured Destruction," appropriately nicknamed MAD.

What it meant was if they shot nuclear missiles at us, our only plan was to do the same to them until the whole planet was a radioactive pile of rubble.

Reagan was appalled. Instead of accepting it, as had all the other Commanders in Chief since World War II, he proposed we do something else. He imagined a "missile shield" and asked Congress to fund research for it.

Eastern reporters, almost none of whom are people of big ideas (and I was one, and I too was lacking) laughed and laughed and called this Reagan's "Star Wars" plan--you know, like a silly science fiction movie thing.

Reagan didn't seem to mind. Like a lot of people who are able to think outside the box, he was used to people not "getting" him. He just smiled.

It turns out he had attended a lecture by Dr. Edward Teller at Lawrence Livermore Lab about this very subject when he, Reagan, was Governor of California. Dr. Teller later told George Schultz that Reagan had asked him lots of thoughtful questions about missiles and the concepts behind intercepting them. Reagan clearly continued to think about Teller's ideas long afterward.

As president, when he made his proposal on what was then called the Strategic Defense Initiative, it caused mass consternation in the Kremlin. The Soviet Union, as we now know, was a failing Third World state and its leaders realized there simply was not money enough in their entire union to match the US on the research and development of this concept. They blinked.

So, just by thinking up the idea, Ronald Reagan brought the Soviets to the bargaining table.

Some of the best leaders we've had in this country have taken great batterings from the know-it-alls who have reported on them: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan did not fit the "mold" the establishment created for them. Yet each one of them had the common sense to believe in himself when others did not.

Like Einstein riding on that streetcar in Bern and imagining what would happen if it zoomed forward at the speed of light, a concept like a missile shield is both simple and complex. We are lucky if in our lifetimes we see one such idea form in the mind of a great man or woman and one such idea change the way we look at the world.

I now know how lucky I was to cover Washington and the White House when Reagan was president. I just wish I had been a person of big ideas myself, so I might have done a better job of it.

Robin on Capitol Hill interviewing Rep. Frank Wolf. That's Rep. Steny Hoyer walking toward us, buttoning his jacket. 

Add to 
Google Reader or Homepage
Subscribe to Robin Chapman News

No comments: