The public on arms

By , Robert Kingston and Daniel Yankelovich are executive director and president, respectively, of the Public Agenda Foundation and editors of ''Voter Options on Nuclear Arms Policy.''

NOW that talks with the Soviet Union seem assured, it's worth asking what we know about the public mood that the President and his negotiators may wish to keep in mind next January. Three observations seem to us worth noting.

The first is that the public welcomes the resumption of talks. An analysis of public attitudes by the nonpartisan Public Agenda Foundation shortly before the election showed that the American people want negotiations very much, and in fact have been nervous about not having them. Since the Soviets were first perceived to have drawn level with the United States in the arms race, Americans have increasingly come to fear the consequences of a nuclear arms race. The public is convinced that once started, a nuclear exchange could not be contained , and that nuclear war is unwinnable. (Among Americans under 30, 50 percent think that all-out nuclear war is likely within the next 10 years!) Accordingly there is a firm consensus that the US and the Soviet Union must never settle their differences by going to war: We should be looking for peaceful solutions as well as aggressive ones. An overwhelming majority (96 percent) voiced that sentiment in the Public Agenda study.

Second, the American public is no longer looking to win an arms race or to regain superiority. People simply don't believe that is possible. Rather, they think that building more weapons to use as bargaining chips doesn't work, because the Soviets can and will immediately build weapons to match us. Again, there is virtual unanimity on this point (92 percent): If we had a bigger nuclear arsenal than the Soviets, they would just keep building until they caught up.

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Third - and this is a lesson Mr. Reagan doesn't have to learn - most Americans are now thoroughly convinced that the Soviets are tough, shrewd, and hostile. They are aware that the Soviets used detente to build up their own strength. They feel ''taken.'' Many of them believe the Soviets have always gotten the better of the deal in negotiations with the US. They see the Soviets as constantly testing us, probing for weakness, and quick to take advantage whenever they find any. And they are in no mood for anyone who might ''give up the store'' in Geneva.

Clearly, the public has no stomach for the nose-to-nose hostilities of the cold war or for sentimental softness in dealing with the Russians. There is an implicit demand for a new policy, one that is realistic, pragmatic, and essentially constructive. Communism is recognized as opposed to the beliefs, the habits, and the values that Americans prize, but Americans today demonstrate none of the fear of conspiracy and subversion that dominated the 1950s. In a dangerous world, Americans are ready to live with their enemies; they believe that our experience with Communist China, for example, proves that mortal enemies can quickly turn into countries we can get along with.

Mr. Reagan, then, has the opportunity to write a new chapter in US-Soviet relations. Most Americans believe that the US has to accept some of the blame for the tension that has plagued our dealings with the Soviets in recent years ( 76 percent held this opinion in the Public Agenda study), and people are willing to take some risks now in the cause of peace. There are broad areas of flexibility in the public mind to give the President negotiating room - areas where the public has not yet made a judgment.

Would we be safer if we spent less time and effort building up our military strength and more on negotiating? Would it be an acceptable risk to sign an arms control agreement even if foolproof verfication could not be guaranteed? Should we expand trade with the Soviets, even if that made them stronger and more secure? Should we stop trying to prevent the spread of communism and learn to live with the Soviets the way we live with China and Yugoslavia? Public opinion research reveals that these are areas where the American people are still of two minds, still prepared to listen to argument. Let us hope the Soviets may be, too.

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