Washington — It seems a little out of character for the pragmatic, experienced George Kennan to think that the Soviet Union and the United States could be persuaded to chop their bulging nuclear arsenals by 50 percent in one fell swoop.
Perhaps he is deliberately overstating his goal in order to prod the hesitant on either side of the Iron Curtain into motion. They need to get unstuck where they have been stuck too long.
Give Mr. Kennan his exaggeration, and he is still headed in the right direction. You may be surprised to lean that he is pleading for a movement which both sides at one time or another have claimed they wanted to pursue.
In the past the Soviet officials have given lip service to the disarmament theme: "Ban the Bomb." Might they take it seriously enough to begin negotiation on a lesser theme: "Ban Half the Bombs"?
What Mr. Kennan, historian and former ambassador, is saying is: let's talk, and if his stated goal is unattainable or unwsie at this stage, we might find something attainable which would be better than the present impasse.
Why not try?
There is no reason why Mr. Kennan should scare off the hard-liners. He was the original hard-liner. It was while he was serving in Moscow that he produced for the State Department his memorandum on anticipated Soviet purposes and policies which guided the US for nearly a decade after World War II. Along with President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Ambassador Kennan made it when the US had a strong military establishment.
Today Mr. Kennan is asking us to face a problem, not run away from it. The problem is that, if the two superpowers are failing to bring the expanding nuclear arms race under control, it may explode while we are all saying that is the last thing we want.
There is lineage of American government policy which leads toward Kennan's goal.
President Reagan has said that he would "negotiate as long as necessary to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons to a point where neither side threatens the survival of the other:" Would that mean reducing them by 50 percent or by 25 percent or what? Let's find out. Let's talk about it.
After the US exploded the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, it proposed that no country be allowed to possess atomic bombs in the future and that any existing ones by locked under the non-vetoable control of the Security Council of the United Nations. Moscow refused.
President Carter sent Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to Moscow to propose that the SALT II negotiations embrace "radical reduction sof nuclear weapons." The Soviet refused to discuss it.
Now the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation is mounting a drive to get 10 million signatures in support of the Kennan initiative. It would be welcome if they would try to get half of them from within the Soviet Union. Kennan's speech is undoubtedly already in the hands of the Kremlin because Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin was present to listen to it. Don't hold your breath until Pravda prints the text or a reasonable facsimile of it.
There was permissible rhetoric in Kennan's address when he said: "We have gone on piling up weapon on weapons, missile upon missile . . . almost involuntarily: like the victims of some sort of hypnotism, like men in a dream, like lemmings heading for the sea."
What is needed is to turn rhetoric into solid, careful, and good-faith negotiations to see what is possible, if anything.