Public Support For SDI
According to opinion polls, SDI has been favorably received by the American public. This general assessment may be deceptive, however. Polls measure simplified responses to complex and sometimes ambiguously worded questions, and some of the data suggest serious confusion and reservations among the respondents, especially in response to questions that link SDI to issues of arms control and expenditure. Public support never seemed to grow firmer than at the time of the 1984 presidential election; but even that support was ambiguous. During the campaign, the Democratic candidate, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, accused the president of wanting to "militarize the heavens" with a scheme that would not work and would prevent progress in arms control and cause grave destabilization. The public seemed to sympathize both with Reagan's proposal and with Mondale's doubts. Among viewers of a televised debate between the candidates, 57 percent of those polled found Reagan more persuasive on SDI; 23 percent found Mondale
more persuasive. A week before the election, however, another poll showed that 48 percent of registered voters concurred with Mondale that SDI would "just speed up the arms race," while only 30 percent thought it would "make us more secure." After the Reagan landslide, the confusion remained just as evident. Early in January 1985, 62 percent of respondents thought a defense in space could prove workable, compared with only 23 percent who thought it could not. In the same poll, however, 60 percent said that having such a system in space would worry them, whereas only 25 percent thought it would make them feel more secure.
The failure of the meeting at Reykjavík to produce agreement on arms control or on SDI-testing seemed to strengthen public support. The public overwhelmingly supported the president's stand at Reykjavík. In one poll, 56 percent approved the president's refusal to trade away SDI for an arms-control agreement, compared with 16 percent who disapproved. Another showed 62 percent supporting the president against 22 percent opposing him. Still another showed a still larger disparity of 66 percent to 21 percent. And when a poll stressed Reagan's leadership role by asking whether he did "the right thing" in "refusing to change his ideas for the development of 'Star Wars'"—72 percent agreed and only 18 percent disagreed. Asked in the same poll if they continued to favor SDI, a majority indicated approval by a margin of 60 percent to 26 percent.
Several polls revealed considerable apprehension about the possible effects of SDI. In a November 1985 poll, 71 percent of the respondents agreed that negotiations for a reduction in nuclear missiles were preferable to developing SDI. In October 1985, 74 percent of those polled said that it was more important for the United States and U.S.S.R. to agree to arms reduction than for the United States to develop space-based weapons to defend against nuclear attack. Asked the same year about Gorbachev's proposal that both sides cut their missiles by 50 percent and negotiate a "total ban" on the development of space-based defenses, 47 percent approved, 32 percent did not. Respondents in another poll that year agreed, 46 percent to 39 percent, that "some limits" on SDI should be accepted if no treaty could be negotiated otherwise. By 53 to 33 percent, those questioned said they would choose negotiations over development of "Star Wars," if these were the only choices. Almost a year after Reykjavík, in September 1986, by a slight margin of 47 to 43 percent, respondents favored cutting back on "Star Wars" in order to achieve an arms-control agreement.
In addition, despite support for SDI, before and after Reykjavík, there was evidence of concern over the costs of the project. In January of 1985, 46 percent said SDI would not be worth the money it would cost, while 40 percent said it would prove worthwhile. In October 1985, 48 percent said they would favor spending the "many billions" it would cost, but 46 percent were opposed. In November 1985, by a margin of 59 to 27 percent, respondents agreed that the president's proposed budget of $26 billion over five years was too high. In January 1987, however, after an election in which the president failed to persuade the electorate to send back members of Congress who would support SDI, 50 percent still thought SDI was "worth the amount of money it would cost," against 37 percent opposed.
If any conclusions can be drawn from these responses, the most fundamental would seem to be that the president did succeed in persuading most respondents that his proposal was a good one, but that many remained concerned that SDI was blocking prospects for arms control and could turn out to be more expensive than it was worth.