Washington — Even if all the 50,000-odd nuclear weapons on Earth detonated at once, the planet itself would not blow apart like an apple hit by a bullet. Mankind has yet to unleash a force powerful enough to cause destruction equal to Armageddon's results described in the Bible: ``And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.'' It is also unlikely that the blast and radiation of all-out nuclear war would instantly eliminate the human race. People are too dispersed globally to be wiped out by almost any number of warheads.
Yet the damage and casualties wrought by a nuclear exchange would certainly be of a scale beyond anything in history. Would it be the end of the world?
To strategic experts - professors, officials, and think-tank analysts, all of whom pride themselves on their realism - such a question is beside the point. Nuclear war would be terrible enough, they say; proving it would be terrible is a waste of time.
But to many liberal antinuclear activists this question is exactly the point. A new feeling that nuclear war might indeed extinguish all plant and animal life has animated such recent calls for disarmament as Jonathan Schell's book, ``The Fate of the Earth,'' and the United Methodists' pastoral letter on ``The Nuclear Crisis.''
Those who hold this point of view do not claim that the explosive force and radiation of nuclear weapons will directly cause Armageddon. Rather they argue that World War III would be such an ecological catastrophe that the Earth would no longer be able to support life. Their theory is this: Thousands of nuclear explosions would set thousands of fires, whose smoke pall would blacken the sky for months. Temperatures would drop and plant life would wither; in short, the earth would be in the grip of a nuclear winter from which it might never recover.
The possibility of nuclear winter first received widespread publicity as the result of a 1983 Science magazine article. Since then, numerous panels and papers have probed the theory's technical soundness. There is much debate among scientists about its apocalyptic implications. But Mr. Schell and others say that when it comes to the effects of nuclear weapons, people must assume the worst-case analysis to be true.
``The very existence of uncertainty about whether or not a holocaust would extinguish our species should lead us to treat the issue morally and politically as though it were a certainty,'' writes Schell.
The threat of nuclear winter similarly lay at the heart of the Methodist bishops' pastoral letter of 1985, a document that concluded that not only the use of, but the threat to use, nuclear weapons, was a position ``which cannot receive the church's blessing.''
To Schell and the bishops, the totality of the threat overrides all other concerns. In essence, they feel it is meaningless to defend Western values with nuclear weapons. If used, the weapons would destroy not only the people who espouse those values, but the memory of the civilization that gave those values meaning. Abolition of the bomb is the only moral political stand, under this point of view.
``Impractical theorizing,'' might be the first reaction of a typical strategic analyst to this view. Of course, it's hard to generalize a typical analyst's attitudes. But if pressed, such thinkers might say the nuclear threat is not as total as Schell and the bishops state.
The correct question, to paraphrase an argument made by Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr., is not ``what is worth defending at the cost of the survival of the species?'' Rather, it is ``is defending our way of life worth raising the risk that the species will be destroyed from one in 10,000 to one in 1,000, for a certain period of time?''
Most people make this sort of trade-off every day, on a smaller scale. They accept the real risk of riding in an automobile for the value it brings into their lives.
It is not that strategists do not believe in the possibility of nuclear winter, though many do claim the theory is fraught with scientific uncertainty. Rather, it is that they differ with the abolitionists, who favor a governmental goal of banning the bomb, on the chances of nuclear war beginning. Some think-tank theorists say it is possible, even likely, that nuclear war will never occur.
This differs from what is perhaps the general public fatalism: The weapons exist, so one day they will be used. The analysts' more optimistic scenario is based on the very thing that moves Schell, the terrible potency of the weapons. Any rational government knows it will be destroyed if it launches a nuclear weapon; therefore, it will try as hard as it can to never launch.
``We're talking about destruction of the planet. That is a very formidable deterrent,'' says John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago international relations professor.
If a slip occurs and nuclear war does begin, fear of a holocaust may well be a strong force working to limit the exchange at a few weapons, according to other analysts.
Behind the attitude that Armageddon is not inevitable lies the belief that the current nuclear standoff will not have to last forever. It may eventually be superseded, perhaps by new technology, more likely by changes in world politics.
``Historically, many arms races have ended without leading to war,'' concludes Mr. Nye.
But one thing even history is unlikely to eradicate is the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons. That chance may have been lost, notes Mr. Nye ironically, when the Pope failed to burn Galileo. Is the persistence of this knowledge an insuperable barrier to a non-nuclear world? Tomorrow: Nuclear knowledge and stability in a non-nuclear world