Who's ahead in the superpower nuclear arms race? Does it matter? What is likely to happen if a nuclear war breaks out? Can humanity protect itself from atomic devastation? What can be done to reverse the arms competition and bring it under control? What role can the public play?
These are the crucial questions which the American people now thoughtfully and earnestly confront. Across the United States, from Honolulu in the west to Boston and Bangor in the east, millions of citizens this week are participating in lectures, debates, concerts, film showings, foot races, bicycle tours, peace walks -- all designed to heighten public awareness of the nuclear issue. It is no exaggeration to say that the popular antinuclear movement may be the most significant development since the end of World War II. The people are learning, and they are speaking out.
Not, we hasten to add, because they are pacifists or unilateral disarmers. Some are, certainly, but not the majority. They comprise Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, hawks and doves. They are a citizenry simply waking up to the implications of an accelerating nuclear arms buildup, and demonstrating their concern about the direction in which the world is moving and the failure of world leaders, so far, to change that direction. So insistent and powerful is their voice becoming that they cannot be ignored. President Reagan himself has taken note of their concern in these words:
''I welcome that concern. Those who've governed America throughout the nuclear age and we govern it today have had to recognize that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. So, to those who protest against nuclear war, I can only say I'm with you.''
These words are reassuring, but are they enough to dispel public uneasiness? Mr. Reagan insists that negotiation with the Russians is not possible until the United States achieves nuclear ''parity'' with the Soviet Union. Yet for years now Republican and Democratic presidents have maintained that the US and the Soviet Union enjoy rough nuclear equivalence or sufficiency. Such a tough-minded defense advocate as Sen. Henry Jackson states unequivocally that, despite certain imbalances, ''in the aggregate, we have the capability of deterring the Soviets.'' The Joint Chiefs of Staff also take issue with the President's assessment, questioning whether conveying an impression of alleged US weakness is militarily or politically wise.
Many Americans, for their part, wonder what relevance equivalence has when the US and Russia possess 16,000 nuclear warheads between them and when such searing accounts as Jonathan Schell's ''The Fate of the Earth'' drive home what the results of a nuclear holocaust might be. This is why the popular movement for a nuclear freeze and for serious arms negotiations grows.
Whether there should be a freeze or not is debatable. It is interesting that arms control Roger Molander, the founder of Ground Zero Week, has not himself endorsed such a proposal. But, as Americans discuss this and other nuclear issues in the days ahead, there is little doubt they will support strategic arms talks -- and a Reagan-Brezhnev get-together, however tentative such a summit still is.
The debate, in short, is healthy. Without feeding fear and hysteria, it can help all of us better understand what is at stake in this nuclear age -- and, most important, what constructive and healing steps can be taken to prevent the world going down a path of self-destruction.