Arms race: a time for unilateral initiative

The 19 senators and 128 members of the House who want to freeze the number of nuclear weapons held by both the United States and the Soviet Union made news with what was described as the boldness of their proposal. Some people were shocked that local governing bodies, including New England town meetings, would endorse the same policy. That such an idea should be found bold or shocking is itself perhaps the saddest commentary on how far we have departed from reason in dealing with nuclear matters.

The proposal is, in fact, a very modest--even a timid--one. The superpowers between them already have enough to kill every man, woman, and child in the world 15 times. It therefore ought not to seem shockingly radical to suggest a reduction going beyond a freeze in weapons.

But, we are told, unless there is agreement with the Soviet Union for mutual, verifiable reduction, this would be engaging in unilateral disarmament--and that's a dirty word. Why should it be, necessarily? We are not talking about disbanding the armed forces; we are only talking about reducing our capacity for overkill.

But it is that capacity, the argument runs, which gives us the margin of assured destruction to deter a first strike. A good many of the assumptions about a first strike need to be reexamined in terms of what would be left for the side which made the strike.

For purposes of argument, consider a Soviet first strike against the US. If it were really powerful enough to destroy American retaliatory capacity, its secondary ecological effects would be so awesome as to damage the Soviet Union, too. A massive exchange of weapons between the two countries would go further. Quite simply, it would wipe out human and animal life. Period.

Even President Reagan says he wants to reduce nuclear weapons. But consistent with the Alice in Wonderland approach of this administration, which promotes lower spending and bigger budgets in the same speeches, he wants to reduce the weapons by increasing them. This is the kind of logic which says you have to have an arms race before you can reverse it. Regardless of logic, history says there has never been an arms race which did not end in war.

If history repeats itself with respect to the present arms race, it is folly to expect that the two sides will deny themselves the presumed advantages of the nuclear weapons they have created and deployed at such great expense. It might be argued that this is exactly what was done with poison gas, which was used in World War I and not in World War II; but the gamble that the analogy would hold is too risky to take.

It is difficult to grasp the finality of a nuclear war. Our experience with war has been that, however large the casualties and however great the suffering and destruction, the human race and other species survive. We have had no experience--nor by definition can we--with the end of mankind.

The predictable response of the Soviet Union to the defense policies of the Reagan administration has been to increase its own efforts. This, in turn, has reinforced the Reagan administration's natural predilections. There is a leapfrog effect which is produced by a series of mutual and related but nonetheless essentially unilateral actions.

Would it be possible to point a similar series of actions in the other direction? If an arms race can be started, or continued, or accelerated unilaterally, it would be interesting to experiment with halting one unilaterally, or at least slowing it down. The conventional objection to this, of course, is that the other side would not respond and that without such a response it would be foolishly dangerous. Given the overkill capacity of our existing nuclear stockpile, one may question how dangerous it would be. We don't have to match the Soviets weapon for weapon; all we need is enough to destroy their country. We could dispose of a good many that we now have and still have enough for that.

One may also question the objection that the other side would not respond to decreases in American arms just as it responds to increases. Escalators go down as well as up. If the Soviets increase their defense program in their own time and their own way when we increase ours, is it totally unreasonable to suppose that perhaps they might also decrease their program, again in their own time and their own way, if we decreased ours? It might even be reasonable to suppose that they would welcome the opportunity to do so, given their manifold difficulties in Afghanistan and Poland and with their own economy. As a matter of fact, President Brezhnev has recently indicated as much.

This is a road which is worth traveling at least a little farther down just to see where it might lead.

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