Washington — In a general way, the US public approves of ``star wars,'' the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). But opinion polls show many citizens don't know much about SDI, which is a program researching possible defenses against nuclear missiles. And given an either/or choice, SDI or an arms control pact, most people prefer arms control.
``With an issue as complicated as SDI, opinion bounces around, depending on what nerve the pollster touches,'' says Karlyn Keene, managing editor of Public Opinion magazine.
When asked a straight up or down question, people for the most part say they approve of star-wars work, according to many recent polls. In a Gallup survey released this week, 61 percent of the respondents said ``yes'' when asked: ``Would you like to see the United States go ahead with the development of (SDI), or not?''
Similarly worded questions drew a 59 percent positive response in a recent Time magazine poll, and 78 percent positive answers in a poll taken for the Committee on the Present Danger, an organization that favors SDI.
But a State Department public opinion expert, who declined to be named, says that the wording of these questions encourages a ``yes'' answer. When the same thing is asked in a more ``two sided'' way, (``Proponents say SDI will protect us. Critics say it won't work. Do you favor it?'') opinion splits more evenly, this official says.
SDI is not exactly a primary concern of the public, despite the thousands of words produced on the subject by journalists. Only about 20 percent of US citizens have heard a great deal about the program, according to State Department estimates.
In the recent Gallup poll, 15 percent of people responding said they had followed discussion about star wars ``very closely,'' and 46 percent said they had followed it ``fairly closely.''
Displaying the optimisim in technology for which America is famous, most US citizens do think a missile-defense system is likely to work.
Sixty-eight percent of citizens polled by Time held that opinion, as did 58 percent of respondents to a New York Times/CBS poll.
But there is apparently no majority opinion on what the eventual effect of this system might be.
Asked by Gallup if star wars would ``make the world safer from nuclear destruction, or less safe?'', 44 percent of respondents said it would make the globe safer. Twenty-nine percent said it would make the world more precarious, and 27 percent said the system would make no difference, or had no opinion.
In the Committee on the Present Danger survey, a significant minority of those polled -- 36 percent -- said star wars would not make much difference in world safety. Forty-six percent said the system would make the world better off.
There is also no majority opinion, in any poll, on what the result might be of the interaction between SDI and the arms control process. Large portions of the public believe the presence of SDI might in fact facilitate an arms pact between the Soviet Union and the US -- but almost equally large percentages believe SDI will lessen chances of such an agreement.
And given an either/or choice, the public may prefer arms control negotiations over work on missile defense. Fifty-three percent of those polled by New York Times/CBS opted for arms control. In the Gallup survey, 47 percent of respondents favored a 50 percent cut in superpower missile forces, and a ban on space-based weapons; 32 percent opposed such a deal.
Congress, which devotes many waking hours to finding out what consitutents want, generally feels the voters are confused about SDI. Aides say the public supports missile defense, in its broadest sense -- protection of the population. But voters aren't yet sure that's what SDI will produce.
As far as members are concerned, the one important fact is that voters do not dislike the concept.
Candidates in next year's congressional elections ``are going to be real wary about running against SDI, but some will run for it,'' predicts an aide to Sen. Pete Wilson (R) of California.