WASHINGTON — For 16 years, the United States sought to survive the unthinkable, designing its nuclear strategy with the aim of emerging victorious from the rubble of a full-blown atomic conflict.
At the height of the cold war, President Reagan gave orders for the targeting of US strategic weapons that opened the door to a massive buildup - one that hit an all-time high of 13,000 warheads in 1987.
Five years after the cold war, President Clinton has brought policy into line with reality.
Last month, Mr. Clinton quietly jettisoned Mr. Reagan's doctrine, recognizing that victory in an nuclear war is unachievable. A new secret targeting directive he issued to the Pentagon shifts the US to a policy of deterrence. Now it will merely threaten a swift atomic response to a nuclear attack on it or its allies.
The presidential decision directive (PDD) reaffirms a reliance on nuclear arms as "a hedge against an uncertain future," says Robert Bell, senior director for defense policy at the National Security Council. But by embracing a deterrence doctrine, it brings targeting orders into line with a US-Russia pact under which the two are cutting back to 6,000 warheads each. They now have 7,900 warheads each.
More important, says Mr. Bell, the PDD opens the door to further reductions if Russia ratifies the 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START II, and negotiate a proposed START III accord.
The PDD "recognizes that nuclear weapons play a smaller role in our national-security posture today than at any time in the 20th century," asserts Bell.
The new directive, to be used by the Pentagon to redraw its nuclear-war plan, known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan, is being welcomed by arms-control advocates. But they see it as only a small step toward ending the persisting danger of a deliberate or accidental nuclear exchange with Russia.
"The US and Russia have 5,000 to 6,000 nuclear missiles ready to launch on 15 minutes' notice," says Joe Cirincione of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a think tank here. "That hasn't changed since the beginning of the cold war."
Arms-control advocates say the US and Russia must do more to reduce the threat of atomic conflict, including taking most weapons off "alert status," which allows them to be targeted and fired in minutes. They should also slash their armories to as few as 200 warheads and embrace "no first use" policies.
Conservatives oppose further cuts in the US nuclear stockpile. They charge that by abandoning Reagan's doctrine, Clinton is signaling US weakness at a time of growing global uncertainty.
"The Clinton administration is introducing less certainty into the minds of our adversaries," says a GOP congressional staffer.
Critics also question the timing of Clinton's decision, pointing out that START II, which limits Russia and the US to 3,500 warheads each, remains unratified by the Russian Parliament.
Meanwhile, they assert, the Kremlin is becoming more dependent on atomic arms as its cash-strapped conventional forces decay.
A recent CIA statement says President Yeltsin is contemplating a "transitional doctrine" in May broadening Russian reliance on nuclear weapons.
THE policy, it says, would end Russia's long-standing "no-first use" pledge. It would also bring Russia in line with NATO doctrine by authorizing nuclear responses to major conventional attacks.
Administration officials respond that Russia is ahead of schedule - as is the US - in cutting its nuclear forces. They also say its nuclear modernization efforts are beset by problems, revealing that Russia's newest submarine-launched ballistic missile exploded in a recent test.
They reiterate that the US will not begin cutting its warheads to the START II level until Russia ratifies the treaty.