Selling “Star Wars” in American Mass Media

  • William M. KnoblauchEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of the Media book series (PSHM)


In March of 1983, Ronald Reagan introduced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a program to intercept incoming ballistic missiles in space. Dubbed “Star Wars” by skeptics, SDI prompted a media battle—in print, television commercials, documentaries, and even a mail-in sweepstakes—between two non-government organizations: High Frontier, which believed missile defense was achievable, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, which criticized Star Wars at every turn. Together, these NGOs shaped public perceptions of Star Wars’ promise before the White House could. Alarmed at this media war, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization had to fight back with its own media campaign to ensure the short-term survival of SDI. In the process, it abandoned Reagan’s vision and pursued continued congressional funding.


  1. American Broadcasting Company (ABC). 1988. War and Peace in the Nuclear Age: Part 12, Reagan’s Shield. 1 hr.Google Scholar
  2. American Defense Preparedness Association (ADPA). 1987. SDI: A Prospect for Peace. VHS, 29.5 minutes. Arlington, VA: Smith and Harrott.Google Scholar
  3. Baucom, Donald R. 1992. The Origins of SDI, 1944–1983. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.Google Scholar
  4. Bissel, Robert. 1985. NBC Nightly News, 30 May. Accessed at Vanderbilt University’s Network News Archive.Google Scholar
  5. Boyer, Paul. 2010. “Selling Star Wars: Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.” In Selling War in a Media Age: The Presidency and Public Opinion in the American Century, edited by Kenneth Osgood and Andrew K. Frank, 196–223. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.Google Scholar
  6. Cannon, Lou. 2000. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Public Affairs.Google Scholar
  7. Cannon, Lou, and David Hoffman. 1983. “President Overruled Advisors on Announcing Defense Plans.” Washington Post, 26 March.Google Scholar
  8. Collins, Robert. 2007. Transforming America. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Davidson, Keay. 1999. Carl Sagan: A Life. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  10. Esno, Tyler. 2018. “Reagan’s Economic War on the Soviet Union.” Diplomatic History 42, no. 2 (April): 281–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. FitzGerald, Frances. 2000. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  12. Franklin, H. Bruce. 1988. War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Garwin, Richard L., and Carl Sagan. 1983. “Space Weapons: Andropov and the American Petitioners.” New York Times, 18 May, A26.Google Scholar
  14. Gelb, Leslie H. 1983. “Aides Urged Reagan to Postpone Antimissile Ideas for More Study.” New York Times, 25 March.Google Scholar
  15. Graham, Daniel O. 1983. High Frontier: A Strategy for National Survival. New York: Tom Doherty Associates.Google Scholar
  16. ———. 1984. A Defense that Defends. VHS, 27 minutes. Washington, DC: High Frontier.Google Scholar
  17. Graham, Daniel O., and Gregory A. Fossedal. 1983. A Defense That Defends: Blocking Nuclear Attack. Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair. “History of NDIA.” Accessed 1 May 2018.
  18. Lakoff, Sanford, and Herbert F. York. 1989. A Shield in Space? Technology, Politics, and the Strategic Defense Initiative. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.Google Scholar
  19. Lettow, Paul. 2005. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  20. Linenthal, Edward. 1989. Symbolic Defense: The Cultural Significance of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  21. Lomberg, Jon, and Bob Derkach. 1984. Weapons in Space. DVD Copy. Berkeley, CA: Impact Productions, Distributor for Union of Concerned Scientists.Google Scholar
  22. Mallove, Eugene. 1984. “The Inevitable Asteroid: The Way Our World Will End?” Washington Post, 26 August, C1.Google Scholar
  23. Manoff, Robert Karl. 1989. “Modes of War and Modes of Social Address: The Text of SDI.” Journal of Communication 39, no. 1 (Winter): 60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Moore, Kelly. 2008. Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945–1975. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.Google Scholar
  25. New York Times. 1987. “Washington Talk: Briefing: ‘Star Wars,’ a Sequel?” 20 October.Google Scholar
  26. Pike, John E., Bruce G. Blair, and Stephen I. Schwartz. 1998. “Defending Against the Bomb.” In Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940, edited by Stephen I. Schwartz. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press.Google Scholar
  27. Rhodes, Richard. 2007. Arsenals of Folly. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  28. Rogin, Michael Paul. 1987. “Ronald Reagan” the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  29. Slayton, Rebecca. 2013. Arguments That Count: Physics, Computing, and Missile Defense, 1949–2012. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  30. Smith, Jeff. 1989. Unthinking the Unthinkable: Nuclear Weapons and Western Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Stengel, Richard. 1985. “The Great Star Wars P.R. War: Kindergarten Imagery Obscures a Vital and Complex Debate.” Time Magazine, 9 December.Google Scholar
  32. Time Magazine. 1984. “An E.S.P. Gap.” 23 January.Google Scholar
  33. ———. 1985. “Great Star Wars P.R. War.” 9 December, 31–32.Google Scholar
  34. Tirman, John, ed. 1985. The Fallacy of Star Wars. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  35. ———. 1986. Empty Promise: The Growing Case Against Star Wars. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  36. Union of Concerned Scientists (USC). 1986. The False Frontier. VHS. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists.Google Scholar
  37. Wilson, James Graham. 2015. The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Wirls, Daniel. 1992. Buildup: The Politics of Defense in the Reagan Era. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Finlandia UniversityHancockUSA

Personalised recommendations