Washington — It might be helpful to go over the record of the two presidential candidates on nuclear arms restraint and the treaty for strategic arms limitation (SALT II).
President Carter received the inheritance of an arms limitation agreement with Russia from Messrs. Ford and Kissinger (signed by Mr. Ford at Vladivostok in 1974) but thought he could do better, and put it aside. He couldn't, and now he wants the Senate to ratify his version, SALT II. Mr. Reagan says SALT II is "fatally flawed" and wants the Senate to reject it for a hypothetical "SALT III" -- a treaty which he hopes would give the United States more concessions. This week Defense Secretary Harold Brown said he thought the election would be a "referendum" on SALT II, recalling the tragic Senate rejection of the League of Nations in the Harding-Cox election of 1920, which Woodrow Wilson vainly tried to make a "solemn referendum" on the Versailles Treaty. (The Senate in 1919-20 always had a majority for some kind of a league, but never a two-thirds majority for a particular league.)
Last week Secretary of State Muskie and the President declared that, election or no election, they will try to get Senate ratification "before January," i.e., in the lame duck session. The treaty, Mr. Muskie says, isn't perfect but it does impose significant restraints on Russia's arms build-up. It includes timetables, and these timetables are running out: "Time is of the essence." He says that "seven American presidents have pursued, with the deepest conviction, the effort to control humankind's most terrifying creations . . . That is why the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously support early ratification of the SALT II treaty. That is why all of our European allies strongly urge us to ratify it promptly." And after listing a series of so-called "restraints" on Russia he argues that these are accomplished under the agreement "without significantly interfering with our own strategic modernization programs."
So much for the administration's proratification argument made by a whole chorus of administration spokesmen.
Now for Mr. Reagan. The GOP platform adopted in Detroit declares, "The Republican Party rejects the fundamentally flawed SALT II treaty negotiated by the Carter administration." The goal of American strategy, it says, should be "to achieve overall military and technological superiority over the Soviet Union." Mr. Reagan has gradually softened his original identification with this position. Various correspondents noted an initial belligerence: Time magazine's diplomatic correspondent said (June 9), "Reagan's main foreign policy theme is anti-Sovietism -- visceral, unequivocal and global." The Wall Street Journal's interview, June 3, by Karen Elliott House began "Ronald Reagan's view of international affairs is attractively simple: The Soviet Union is the source of all the world's troubles."
Mr. Reagan has moved into a more centrist position on the treaty but has not changed his strong belief, expressed for example in a campaign speech in Chicago in March, that "once we clearly demonstrate to the Soviet leadership that we are determined to compete, arms control negotiations will again have a chance."
A postconvention interview with the Associated Press (Sept. 30) summarizes his position. It begins, "Ronald Reagan says that as president he would scrap the proposed treaty on limiting strategic arms without allowing a Senate vote on it, then toughen the US negotiating stance and seek new weapons talks with the Soviet Union." He would put pressure on the Soviets by raising "the possibility of an arms race." He is quoted as saying:
"We have been unilaterally disarming at the same time we're negotiating supposedly arms limitation with the other fellow . . . He will be far more inclined to negotiate in good faith if he knows that the US is engaged in building up its military . . . The one card that's been missing in these negotiations has been the possibility of an arms race."
Mr. Carter shifted position on the Vladivostok agreement. Mr. Reagan now seems to be changing, too: He uses the phrase "margin of safety" instead of "superiority" in defense, and he no longer speaks of an arms race as the "missing card." The Carter-Reagan debate may clarify both positions.