Modern history, as it is taught in Republican campaign speeches and conservative opinion articles, holds that when Ronald Reagan took office as president in 1981, the Soviet Union was a thriving superpower, militarily superior to the United States and able, without much apparent strain, to outdo America in developing and deploying dangerous new weapons.
Experienced defense intellectuals warned of a ''window of vulnerability,'' a period during which Russia might calculate that it could start and win a nuclear war against America.
Even as late as October 1988, a full three years after Mikhail Gorbachev had begun the revolution that eventually cost him his country and his job, the CIA's top Soviet analyst, Robert Gates, warned in a speech, ''The dictatorship of the Communist Party remains untouched and untouchable.É A long competition and struggle with the Soviet Union lie before us.''
Yet, just a month later, Mr. Gorbachev went to the United Nations in New York and, to anyone who paid attention, announced the surrender of communism. ''We are far from claiming to have a monopoly on truth,'' he said - in one sentence undermining Marxism-Leninism's claim to be the only scientific worldview and exposing his own doubt that it would be the inevitable victor in the global class struggle. Within three years the Soviet system collapsed altogether.
What happened? According to conservative thinkers, Ronald Reagan had looked upon this seemingly all-powerful Soviet structure, denounced it as ''the evil empire,'' called on Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall and, most important, had envisioned an impermeable American defense, the Strategic Defense Initiative - Star Wars - that would make all Soviet missiles useless.
Upon considering Mr. Reagan's line of attack, this theory goes, the Soviet leaders clapped their hands to their collective foreheads, realized that the game was up and allowed their entire political, economic, ideological and social system to fall to pieces.
It is as pretty a story as any that Mr. Reagan himself ever told. But it should not survive Frances Fitzgerald's new book, ''Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War,'' (Simon and Schuster, $24.95). Those who see Mr. Reagan's Star Wars speech as the trumpet blast that brought down the walls of the Soviet Union do not even have the benefit of the logical fallacy of post hoc, propter hoc. There is no ''hoc.'' Yes, Mr. Reagan made his speech, and, yes, the Soviet Union subsequently collapsed. But Star Wars has never been built. After an expenditure of more than $60 billion, none of its variations has ever passed a realistic operational test.
Furthermore, by 1987, under the tutelage of the newly freed dissident Andrei Sakharov, a designer of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Mr. Gorbachev dismissed whatever theoretical threat Star Wars presented to the Soviet system. As Mr. Reagan persisted at a Washington summit in trying to win Soviet approval for Star Wars tests, Mr. Gorbachev told him, ''I think you're wasting money. I don't think it will work. But if that's what you want to do, go ahead.''
Also, the Soviet Union never tried to match the Reagan defense buildup. Soviet defense outlays grew modestly and increased as a percentage of gross domestic product largely because the civilian sector was imploding.
Yet Star Wars, with its promise of invulnerability without messy diplomatic negotiation or unverifiable treaties, has become a touchstone for conservatives. Repeatedly, for the past 20 years, Star Wars advocates have acted as though the technology for their defense system already existed, or could be developed in a short time, and that an effective defense was thwarted only by lack of national will.
The program is now known as National Missile Defense, a limited deployment of land-based interceptors with the new goal of defending America from a missile launched by a ''rogue'' state. Congress has voted that it is U.S. policy to deploy a missile defense, and even President Bill Clinton has agreed to fund Star Wars research and to decide this year whether to proceed with deployment with a system that might be fielded in 2005.And yet little has changed. There is still no prospect of a reliable shield against incoming missiles, especially those accompanied by decoys. Furthermore, defense strategists now warn that potential foes will develop ''asymmetrical'' means of attacking the United States. An enemy that wanted to detonate a nuclear weapon against the United States need not wrestle with the intricacies of launching and guiding an intercontinental ballistic missile. It would be far easier to slip a warhead aboard a ship and set it off, say, in San Francisco Bay.
National Missile Defense also creates the same risks of an arms race that led Washington and Moscow to sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972. Even a limited system threatens to provoke China, for example, to deploy ever more warheads to overwhelm a U.S. defense, rather than risk losing its nuclear deterrent.
After all these years, Star Wars remains a multibillion-dollar expenditure with no end in sight. At worst, it threatens to increase the nuclear arsenals it seeks to negate. At best, it is merely a waste of money, another of those Washington scams in which pseudopatriots invent threats, wave the flag and pick the taxpayers' pockets.
The writer is Washington columnist for the New York Daily News.
Copyright 2000 IHT