WASHINGTON — Secretary of State George P. Shultz was perplexed and turned to the aerospace executive next to him to ask what the President was talking about. Shultz said the President's plan sounded worrisome. The executive wasn't quite sure just what the President had in mind, but he assured Shultz that it would never get off the ground.
They were guests at a hastily arranged and secret White House dinner gathering of about 50 top government officials, weapons contractors and scientists dramatically summoned on very short notice from throughout the country to be briefed on a speech the President would soon be making to the nation.
Between their main course and dessert, the President left them to face the television cameras to speak of "changing the course of human history" with a bold new program aimed at rendering "nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete."
A scientist in attendance that night reports that most of his colleagues were stunned by the President's pitch, "except Edward (Teller)--he was just beaming. This is his baby. He's been pushing defense for years, but everybody else I talked to thought the speech was just off the wall."
So it went, back in March of 1983, when Reagan--in what is most commonly referred to as his "Star Wars" speech--proposed building a defensive system that would protect the United States against attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was a flyer, a gambit, an impulse totally outside mainstream thinking on national defense. There was even something pixieish about how the President just stuck it into the end of a speech calling for more spending on offensive nuclear weapons, such as the MX missile.
"I've been having this idea," the President explained at a press conference a few days after the speech. "It's been kicking around in my mind for some time here recently. . . . And since we don't know how long it will take . . . we have to start."
Program in Disarray
Now, the whole world is discussing what is officially termed the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a name that suggests a carefully conceived, well-thought-out and meticulously planned proposal. It is none of those things, and Administration insiders concede that the program it spawned is in disarray.
"There was no one in the Administration who had thought through the consequences," a key White House scientific consultant told The Times, "and so it was natural when that bombshell hit for people to scramble around and figure out what they are going to do next."
The consultant, who requested anonymity, still works on the project but expressed concern that the office set up in the Administration to run this program is "in a shambles . . . everyone's scrambling for contracts, but it's not at all clear what we're after."
But shambles or not, "Star Wars" has become a major fact of life in the nuclear arms race. Last week, a senior White House official said Reagan plans to make his initiative the focus of next month's summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The President reportedly will attempt to shift the discussion away from traditional arms control and onto defensive strategy. The senior official was quoted as saying Reagan will tell the Soviets that "there is a new technology that may give us a new way of doing things better."
Both sides agree that efforts to construct defensive weapons are a serious obstacle to reaching agreement on a comprehensive test ban treaty, a ban on weapons in space and perhaps any arms control at all. In his news conference last Tuesday, the President said he would not halt development and testing of a "Star Wars" system in exchange for deep cuts in the number of Soviet offensive missiles.
Subject Not Certain
However, despite its immediate impact, one point about the "Star Wars" debate can be made bluntly: Neither side seems to know exactly what they are talking about. As yet, neither superpower has even the recognizable beginnings of a defensive system that could render nuclear weapons "impotent" as the President has proposed.
Most experts agree that this particular goal will never be met. Thus, most proponents of SDI are resigned to accomplishing something far less significant, and the talk in the trade is now most often about new anti-satellite weapons or some increased measure of protection for missile silos. And even "Star Wars" ' most enthusiastic boosters never claimed that the system could thwart attack by nuclear-armed cruise missiles, manned bombers or low-trajectory missiles.
However, that night in March, Reagan clearly had more in mind. For years before he became President, he had been getting enthusiastic briefings from members of the political right--such as physicist Edward Teller and retired Army Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham--urging development of a defensive shield to protect America against incoming missiles. Theoretically, this shield would protect civilians, as well as missile silos.