THE American response to the Soviet offer on March 13 to extend its eight-month unilateral moratorium beyond March 31, and to begin negotiations for a binding verified treaty to ban all tests ``without linkage to any other questions,'' was completely negative, indeed almost provocative. The Reagan administration invited Soviet scientists to observe an underground test in the latter part of April, but in the meantime, on March 22, it actually conducted a nuclear test explosion -- thus, in effect, challenging the Soviet Union to end its moratorium. The Soviet Union again announced that it would not resume testing if the United States undertook no further tests, but on April 10 the US again carried out a test explosion, its ninth since the Soviet moratorium began. The following day, the Soviet Union announced that it, too, would now resume testing, but that it was prepared to stop if the United States would do so.
The series of Soviet offers may have convinced many governments that the Soviet Union is serious about stopping all nuclear testing and curbing the competition in nuclear arms. The American response may also convince many governments that the United States is not really serious about ending or even limiting the nuclear arms race, but is in fact determined to continue it. In any case, the peoples of the world must count this as another lost opportunity to begin to end what may be a mad race to oblivion.
No other measure of nuclear arms control has been sought for so long -- for more than 30 years -- as an end to all testing. It is regarded by the nonnuclear countries as the most important and most feasible step to halt and reverse the nuclear arms race.
A total test ban would be a major, indeed indispensable, step to halt the nuclear arms race, by curbing the development of new and more destabilizing weapons by the present nuclear powers and by preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to nonnuclear nations.
If testing is banned, the nuclear powers would be unlikely to commit the vast resources required to develop new nuclear weapon systems as the military could not be certain that any new weapon would work effectively without testing it. If the hopes of achieving superiority in the nuclear arms race were ended by stopping testing, there would be little or no incentive to continue that race, and more reason to agree on reducing nuclear forces. For similar reasons the nonnuclear powers would also be unlikely to embark on a nuclear weapons program if they could not test their weapons.
Many experts believe that confidence in the reliability of nuclear weapons can be ensured without test explosions. But if the weapons do deteriorate over time, that would make reliance on them less certain, their use less likely, and their eventual elimination more possible.
Every US administration beginning with President Eisenhower's has given top priority to ending nuclear testing, subject only to effective verification. Advances in seismic technology have made it possible to verify underground tests down to such a low level, below one kiloton in yield, that smaller tests would have no military value. And Mikhail Gorbachev has agreed to ``the most strict control over a ban on nuclear weapon tests, including on-site inspections and the use of all achievements in seismology.''
The Reagan administration, however, has downgraded a test ban to a ``long-term goal'' and, even though verification is no longer a problem, refuses to resume negotiations for a total test ban until after an agreement on deep reductions of nuclear weapons.
Giving priority to ``deep cuts'' is a wrong approach. The nuclear arms race, like a train or a car, must be brought to a stop before putting it into reverse. Deep cuts in the number of nuclear weapons without a test ban would not end the nuclear arms race.
If the two superpowers are free to continue testing and developing more-accurate missiles and more-destabilizing first strike weapons, that could nullify the effect of the reductions. Mere reductions without a test ban would be meaningless if the smaller numbers of weapons were to consist of more dangerus modernized or new ones. It is the search for new weapons, and the dream of nuclear superiority, that may explain the urgent insistence of the Pentagon and the nuclear weapons laboratories to continue testing, and also their adamant opposition to a total test ban.
A deep reduction in the number of nuclear weapons will require long and difficult negotiations. If the political will existed, a test ban could be negotiated much more easily and quickly, and it would in fact facilitate as well as give real meaning to deep cuts.
It would be in the interest of the United States and of the entire world if the Reagan administration would respond positively to the repeated calls by the Soviet Union and the United Nations, and to the appeals of individual governments that have offered to monitor a moratorium, and agree to the early resumption of negotiations for a treaty. Both houses of Congress have also adopted resolutions by large majorities calling for the resumption of negotiations for a comprehensive test ban. It is still not too late for the United States to accede to these calls. That would probably ensure that Chairman Gorbachev and President Reagan would hold a summit conference this year in the US, although the latest American actions seem to raise some doubts as to whether that is what the administration really wants.
William Epstein, a senior special fellow at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, was in charge of disarmament in the UN Secretariat and represented the secretary-general at the negotiations leading to the 1963 partial Test Ban Treaty and the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.