With the USS Ronald Reagan in Santa Barbara, it is worth reflecting on Ronald Reagan’s legacy with regard to nuclear weapons. According to his wife, Nancy, “Ronnie had many hopes for the future, and none were more important to America and to mankind than the effort to create a world free of nuclear weapons.”
President Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist. He believed that the only reason to have nuclear weapons was to prevent the then Soviet Union from using theirs. Understanding this, he argued in his 1984 State of the Union Address, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
Ronald Reagan regarded nuclear weapons, according to Nancy, as “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.”
In 1986, President Reagan and Secretary General Gorbachev met for a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. In a remarkable quirk of history, the two men shared a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Despite the concerns of their aides, they came close to achieving agreement on this most important of issues. The sticking point was that President Reagan saw his Strategic Defense Initiative (missile defenses) as being essential to the plan, and Gorbachev couldn’t accept this (even though Reagan promised to share the US missile defense system with the then Soviet Union). Gorbachev wanted missile defense development to be restricted to the laboratory for ten years. Reagan couldn’t accept this.
The two leaders came heartbreakingly close to ending the era of nuclear weapons, but in the end they couldn’t achieve their mutual goal. As a result, nuclear weapons have proliferated and remain a danger to all humanity. Today, we face the threat of terrorists gaining possession of nuclear weapons, and wreaking massive destruction on the cities of powerful nations. There can be no doubt that had Reagan and Gorbachev succeeded, the US and the world would be much safer, and these men would be remembered above all else for this achievement.
The USS Ronald Reagan has the motto, “Peace through Strength.” President Reagan, like the ship bearing his name, was known for his commitment to this motto, but he never saw nuclear weapons as a strength. In his book, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Paul Lettow quotes Reagan as saying, “I know that there are a great many people who are pointing to the unimaginable horror of nuclear war…. [T]o those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say, ‘I’m with you.’” Lettow also quotes Reagan as stating, “[M]y dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.”
In the 18th and 19th centuries, individuals struggled for the abolition of slavery because they understood that every man, woman and child has the right to live in freedom. Through the efforts and persistence of committed individuals like William Wilberforce in Great Britain and Frederick Douglass in the United States, slavery was brought to an end, and humanity is better for it. In today’s world, we confront an issue of even more transcending importance, because nuclear weapons place civilization and the human species itself in danger of annihilation.
Ronald Reagan was a leader who recognized this, and worked during his presidency for the abolition of these terrible weapons. He believed, according to Nancy, that “as long as such weapons were around, sooner or later they would be used,” with catastrophic results. He understood that nuclear weapons themselves are the enemy.
Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan died before seeing his goal of abolishing nuclear weapons realized. It is up to those of us still living to complete this job. It is not a partisan issue, but rather a human issue, one that affects our common future.
Working to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons would honor the memory of President Reagan, our only recent president with the vision to seek the total elimination of these weapons. He was a president who understood that US leadership was essential to achieving this goal. It behooves us as citizens of the United States to assure that our next president shares President Reagan’s vision on this issue, picks up the baton of nuclear weapons abolition from him and carries it forward.
David Krieger is the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is a leader in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons.