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Searching for realistic policies to limit the world's nuclear arsenal

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A ``leakproof'' Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The so-called ``star wars'' concept, says McNamara, has two separate branches. The first calls for a total and impenetrable defense system. As propounded by President Reagan - who, says McNamara, is almost the only supporter of this branch - it also calls for the elimination of offensive weapons. In that way, the star-wars system becomes purely defensive, rather than a part of a deterrent. McNamara, both in the body of the book and in a detailed and helpful appendix on the technical aspects of SDI, finds the ``leakproof'' shield wholly beyond the range of technical probability.

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A ``deterrent'' SDI. The other branch of SDI support - the sort most often discussed these days - admits the infeasibility of building an impenetrable defense. Instead, it calls for a partial defensive system to be used in tandem with offensive weapons. As such, says McNamara, it is simply a new form of deterrence. As such, it is feared by the Soviets as a way to help insure an American first-strike capability. ``We can safely conclude,'' he writes, ``that any attempt to strengthen deterrence by adding strategic defenses to strategic offensive forces will lead to a rapid escalation of the arms race.''

Is there, then, a way forward? McNamara thinks there is and that it starts with strengthening the conventional forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Over the years, he says, the size of these forces has been allowed to dwindle well below that of their Soviet counterparts. Why? Because NATO policy has been that nuclear weaponry would make up the difference - and would have to be used to counter not only a nuclear but even a conventional attack by Warsaw Pact troops.

``Most Americans,'' writes McNamara, ``are simply unaware that NATO strategy calls for early initiation of the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict with the Soviets. Eighty percent of them believe we would not use such weapons unless the Soviets used them first. They would be shocked to learn they are mistaken.''

But is this first-use policy a viable one? McNamara thinks not. ``Given the tremendous devastation which those Soviet strategic forces that survived a US first strike would now be able to inflict on this country,'' he writes, ``it is difficult to imagine any US President, under any circumstances, initiating a strategic strike except in retaliation against a Soviet nuclear strike.''

Hence his argument that Western nuclear policy is ``bankrupt'' - since the deterrent threat is not credible. Hence, too, his proposal that NATO's conventional forces must be strengthened until they can provide a credible deterrent - a move that would then allow the scaling back (though not to zero) of nuclear warheads on both sides.

That position, McNamara admits, represents a minority view. But, coming as it does on the heels of the Reagan-Gorbachev discussions at Reykjavik - the book could hardly be more timely. Striking a middle ground, it will please neither out-and-out hawks nor wholesale doves. But it is a lucid, calm, and readable book, aimed squarely at the conscience of the thoughtful nonspecialist. It brings much-needed clarity to an issue that is unquestionably the salient one of our time. Written out of long experience and earnest commitment to the future, it well deserves our attention.