In the second episode of “The Americans,” Elizabeth and Phillip, the two Soviet spies living the life of an all-American family in the D.C. suburbs, engage in a risky plot to bug the Secretary of Defense. In doing so, they discover the early stirrings of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” program, which some believe contributed to the end of the Cold War.
In a piece of skullduggery worthy of a John Le Carre novel, the agents poison the son of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s maid. They then give her an ultimatum to bug his house in return for the antidote. A primary architect of the Reagan defense buildup, Weinberger served as Defense Secretary from 1981 to 1987. The KGB wants to eavesdrop on Weinberger’s upcoming meeting with British Defense Minister John Nott.
Despite the threat to her son’s life, the maid is reluctant to plant the bug. Not trusting Elizabeth and Philip, she says she puts her faith in God and asks if Philip is afraid of him/her. Philip replies no, revealing the Cold War divide between the state-sponsored atheism of the USSR and the deep religiosity of many Americans.
Once the maid places the bug in a clock, the final scene of the episode reveals the discussion between Weinberger and his British counterpart. The two cabinet officers note the close relationship between President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Both were leaders of the right in their respective countries and many see the victory of Thatcher’s Conservative Party over the Labor Party in 1979 as a precursor to the Republican Reagan’s defeat of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Following this exchange, the British Defense Minister expresses his support for Reagan’s proposed anti-ballistic missile shield, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which would become popularly known as “Star Wars.” Inspired by his acting career in Hollywood, Reagan proposed a shield in space that would be able to shoot down Soviet nuclear weapons, rendering their considerable arsenal irrelevant. Though a military hawk, Reagan was deeply disturbed by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that had governed American nuclear policy since the 1950s. With his desire to end the threat of nuclear holocaust, the “Gipper” shared common cause with his domestic opponents in the burgeoning nuclear freeze movement.
In reality, however, Reagan did not propose SDI until 1983 and I don’t believe he was discussing it with the European allies in 1981. In fact, when he made his speech announcing “Star Wars,” many NATO members feared Regan’s break with the longstanding MAD policy.
Still, some credit “Star Wars” with accelerating the end of the U.S./Soviet conflict. Though most Western scientists thought the missile shield unfeasible, many Russian military leaders believed that it was not beyond American capabilities. Having seen the tremendous accomplishments of American science in the Manhattan Project and the Apollo space program, some supported Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the mid-1980s as part of an effort to modernize Soviet technology to compete with the US. Gorbachev made American abandonment of SDI a major demand during arms control negotiations between the superpowers, notably at the 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, when the two leaders flirted with getting rid of their nuclear arsenals, much to the chagrin of Reagan’s advisers.
After the first two episodes, the espionage elements of the show are considerably more interesting than the family life of the main characters. So far, though, there is more than enough to keep me interested.