Washington — Obscured by the presidential election, the United States is asked to make one of the most momentous decisions in the history of the nuclear arms race -- the lame-duck Senate vote after the election on SALT II, the strategic arms limitation treaty. The vote has been compared with that on the Versailles Treaty in 1920.
Three presidents over seven years have worked on the treaty, which now is in desperate trouble as it faces the constitutional hurdle of getting a two-thirds Senate majority for ratification. This means in effect, that out of 535 members of Congress, 34 senators have veto power.
It may dominate the news after Nov. 4 when President Carter, regardless of the election outcome, asks a yes-no vote on the treaty from the lame-duck Senate: in other words frm the present body before changes caused by the election.
Vice-President Walter F. Mondale overthe CBS-TV program "Face the Nation" Oct. 26 contradicted those who argue that ratification is impossible and repeated that Mr. Carter will bring it up shortly. He called it "perhaps the single most important issue."
Carter is for the treaty; Ronald Reagan against it. If Mr. Reagan wins election it seems hardly possible that the new treaty can survive. Carter will have difficulty even if re-elected getting enactment.
Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, and President Carter have raised the issue in the final days of the campaign, and it is likely to come up in the presidential debate Oct. 28. Secretary Brown notes that British, French, and West German heads of government urge US ratification, and it may be the most specific election issue recognized by the European allies. Reagan, on the other hand, argues that he can renegotiate better terms from Russia. Like the GOP party platform, Reagan asks "superiority" over the Soviet Union. Although the Joint Chiefs of Staff have endorsed the treaty, it is assailed by a variety of defense groups. Reagan believes Moscow would give better terms if it negotiated during an actual arms race.
W. Averell Harriman, ambassador to the Soviets in World War II, looks at the struggle with awe. An arms race is the alternative, he agrees: It is now or never to reach agreement.
He saysz: "I have met with every Soviet leader from Lenin to Brezhnev. My reading of the Soviet experience indicates that Moscow will sacrifice what it takes to remain equal, as we will, too. The conclusion will not be superiority; the end will be an arms race without end."