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Beyond theory to reality: Can the world disarm?

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The following points will give a rough idea of where the poles of debate are on these issues. ``Strategists'' refers to the bulk of arms analysts, who feel nuclear weapons are necessary for the foreseeable future.

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``Abolitionists'' refers to peace groups that favor making the complete banning of the bomb an explicit government goal, now. Within each group there are many shades of belief, so the positions presented here are of necessity simplistic.

Strategists feel that if both the US and the Soviet Union scrapped their nuclear arms, the chances of a conventional World War III on European soil would greatly increase. They say they would rather run the tiny risk of nuclear catastrophe, an admittedly horrific prospect, than a larger risk of a World War II rerun, which they feel would be terrible enough.

Abolitionists feel that this point of view overestimates the Soviet Union's desire to invade Western Europe. They say disarmament would not increase the chances of general war very much.

On the other hand, abolitionists argue, people must assume that the use of nuclear weapons in anger means the end of the world.

There is a chance, they say, that wide-scale explosion of warheads would lead to the environmental catastrophe known as nuclear winter, and that because the stakes are so high, people cannot gamble that such an event might not occur.

Strategists believe that while nuclear war would be a catastrophe beyond history, in a famous phrase, this does not mean people must operate on the principle that it would be the end of all life. They feel that any nuclear exchange might well be a limited one, and that it is not self-evident that such a war will eventually happen just because the weapons exist.

Finally, strategists say that if all nuclear weapons disappeared tomorrow, the US and the Soviet Union would still be bitter rivals, and the result would be a world of great tension and suspicion, for in a world of no nuclear weapons, the nation that cheated and acquired just one would be king.

Abolitionists retort that if both sides disarmed, relations between the superpowers would greatly improve, since the fierce arsenals themselves cause much of the friction between the two countries.

Many present and former government officials, even those who are sharply critical of President Reagan's defense policies, consider theorizing about a nuclear-free world to be as big a waste of time as promoting the language Esperanto.

Their reason is not so much the problems that would occur in a nuclear-free world, which they feel are considerable, as the sheer political impracticality of all programs for achieving the goal.

``I just don't see how you get there,'' says McGeorge Bundy, national-security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Most of the peace movement devotes its energies not to promoting disarmament per se, but to achieving intermediate steps, like the nuclear freeze and a comprehensive test ban.

Those who do promote disarmament contend that it's time to get past the interminable fights on such points as how to base the MX missile, and push for a public debate on the larger question of what sort of world people are aiming for.

Freeman Dyson, a Princeton physics professor who writes widely on nuclear issues, concludes: ``The sooner we all start thinking realistically about the challenges and difficulties of the non-nuclear world, the sooner we may have a chance to bring it into existence.'' First of a series