40 years and counting

It is an opportune moment for Americans to pause and take stock. Millions of the new generation will not remember that dark event 40 years ago today when the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor and plunged the United States into a war in Asia and Europe. But no one can be unmindful of the awesome military power unleashed in World War II and the challenge which the growth of that power poses for humanity.

There is much to be thankful for in this intervening period. By the reckoning of history, forty years is a long time for global peace. In that period the national wounds of war have been healed. Japan - democratic and prosperous - has become a constructive partner of the West. The influence and honor it failed to win by military means, it has won through technological prowess and economic dynamism. Here, surely, is a pointed example for all.

Pearl Harbor drove home the need for a strong national defense. The geopolitical situation that evolved after World War II - with the expansion of the Soviet empire and a communist ideology hostile to the West - only confirmed the truism that the price of freedom is unceasing vigilance. The American people have willingly accepted that price. Yet in 1981 they cannot but flinch as they read that their Congress has approved the largest peacetime military budget in history - $207 billion - and at a time when so much else needs doing.

Indeed the overkill of weaponry worldwide is staggering. The global arms budget of all countries now exceeds $500 billion a year, including about $100 billion for nuclear weapons, according to Ruth Leger Sivard's ''World Military and Social Expenditures.'' This is estimated to equal the entire annual income of the poorest half of the world's population. The nuclear buildup almost defies comprehension. Today the US has some 10,000 atomic warheads and the Soviet Union 8,000 - each of which has three times the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Would a visitor from outer space think the planet Earth had gone berserk?

Ironically, this insane pile-up of weaponry comes at a time when military power seems less and less capable of achieving desired ends. It could not win a war in Vietnam in the face of determined nationalism. It could not prevent a sweeping religious revolution in Iran or be used to rescue American hostages. Nor has it proved an unmitigated boon to the Soviet Union, which is unable to conquer the people of Afghanistan or to put down the popular movement for democracy in Poland. The fact is, it is not arms but political and economic strength and above all moral and spiritual vision which provide true security. Without these, weapons in the end will prove of no value.

Four decades after Pearl Harbor there are signs that mankind is waking up to the dangers.Some countries, to be sure, are striving to get the bomb. But an aroused public conscience, as evidenced in the marches for peace, and especially the resumption of superpower negotiations to tamp down the arms race give hope that the world will draw back from nuclear holocaust and seek peaceful solutions to its problems.

In some Washington quarters it is fashionable to speak of our times as no longer a ''postwar'' but of a ''prewar'' period. We are aghast at the thought. It will remain only an idle hypothesis, however, if the American people devote themselves as single-mindedly to winning the peace as they did - 40 years ago - to winning the war. Then the great-great-grandchildren of World War II will read in their history books that it really was the last one.

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