President Carter repeatedly raised the question of nuclear "nonproliferation" in his debate with Ronald Reagan, but his administration's record in this difficult field has hardly been an unalloyed success.
Mr. Reagan, for his part, gives the impression of a man who has never really focused on the subject but who also may have changed his mind considerably on the issue as the presidential campaign evolved. Nonproliferation is the specialists' language for efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations.
In the debate Oct. 28, Mr. Carter used a question on the subject of terrorism to raise the nonproliferation issue, apparently as part of his effort to demonstrate that Reagan is incapable of dealing responsibly and competently with nuclear issues. Declaring that the most serious threat would be for radical nations to gain control of nuclear weapons, Carter said: "Both I and my predecessors have had a deep commitment to controlling nuclear weapons. But when Governor Reagan is asked about this, he makes a very disturbing comment that the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons is none of our business."
The President was referring to a statement Reagan was reported to have made in Jacksonville, Fla., last Jan. 31. According to the New York Times, Reagan indicated at a news conference that the US should not stand in the way of foreign countries developing their own nuclear weapons stating: "I just don't think it's any of our business."
The Times reported that an hour after he made that comment, Reaan aides called an impromptu meeting with reporters at which the candidate stressed that he supported American efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. But he repeated earlier remarks that he believed there was little chance the United States could do so, the Times said, and questioned whether as a practical matter any country could stop the development of nuclear technology by other nations.
Asked whether he would accept the concept of Pakistan's development nuclear weapons, Reagan was reported to have replied: "All of us would like to see nonproliferation, but I don't think any of us are succedding in that. We're the only on ethe world that's trying to stop it."
In the debate, Reagan denied ever having said that it was not "any of our business" to try to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. He accused Carter of misstating the facts, and he indicated that nonproliferation would be a major part of his foreign policy were he elected president.
In Pittsburgh on Oct. 29, President Carter hammered once again at the nonproliferation theme, challenging Reagan's denial that he had ever said it was not "any of our business."
Specialists on the subject say Reagan missed a major opportunity to score a point in the debate. He could have pointed out that the Republican Party platform opposes the sale of nuclear fuel to India, and he could have reminded television viewers that only last month President Carter fought hard for, and succeeded in getting, congressional approval for such a sale to India (for reactor, not weapons use).
In fairness to Carter, some experts say that the legal dispute over that sale was many-sided and that a legal case could be made for selling the fuel to India. The President stressed that the US would be violating a contract if it failed to ship the nuclear fuel.
What made the sale particularly touchy was the fact that India had exploded a nuclear device in 1974, apparently with the help of fuel shipped by Canada and perhaps other nations, and may be developing a nuclear weapons delivery system.
Reagan also might have pointed out that one of his leading foreign policy advisers, Fred C. Ikle, is a former director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and that Mr. Ikle made special efforts while in that job to place stricter controls on the transfer of nuclear weapons materials and technology.
These are not simply academic questions. American experts believe that within only a few years, two more nations -- Pakistan and South Africa -- could join the six or seven current members of the so-called nuclear club.
Administration experts say that President Carter should be credited with foucing new attention on the problem.And they point out that he persuaded the French to hold off on the sale of a major fuel reprocessing plant of Pakistan.