Reagan the arms cutter

We will negotiate seriously, in good faith, and carefully consider all proposals made by the Soviet Union. If they approach these negotiations in the same spirit, I am confident that together we can achieve an agreement of enduring value that reduces the number of nuclear weapons, halts the growth in strategic forces, and opens the way to even more far-reaching steps in the future.m

These words by President Reagan in his address at Eureka College will hearten the American people, longing for a vigorous superpower effort to curb the nuclear arms race and avert a cataclysmic showdown. In tone and substance the President has moved significantly from his postelection positions. To what extent he is responding to the anti-nuclear movement in Western Europe and at home and seeking to cover his flanks politically may be a question. But he is moving in the right direction.

The call for starting strategic arms talks as soon as possible is encouraging on two broad counts.

First of all, Mr. Reagan has not made such talks contingent on favorable developments in Poland. His secretary of state had earlier indicated that the imposition of martial law in Poland would affect the timetable for superpower talks. That concept of ''linkage'' now appears to have been set aside even though the Polish situation has not greatly changed. Sensibly so. There is no denying that East-West political tensions can cloud an arms negotiation. But it is also clear that, if the superpowers were to wait until all such tensions were eased, they might wait a long time indeed. Bringing the arms competition under control is an overriding imperative. It brooks no delay.

Secondly, the President has put on the table a two-part plan that is not unreasonable as an opening bid. It rightly aims at achieving nuclear stability through controlling the most destabilizing systems - the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles which have such high accuracy and are therefore so threatening. It is doubtful the Russians would agree in the short term to the kinds of reductions in missiles Mr. Reagan is talking about (down from 2,400 to 850), but there is no doubt such reductions will have to be made in the long run.

Moreover, stressing warheads (bombs) over throw weight (the weight a missile can carry to a target) should interest the Russians. By reducing first the overall numbers of warheads of both land and sea-based ICBMS, the two sides would achieve equality in warheads (down to 5,000 for each side) and be assured of verifiability. The problem with focusing on throw weight, as the Pentagon favors, is that the Russians have such an advantage they would be reluctant to cut back so severely (an advantage, it might be added, that the US chose not to take when designing its own nuclear forces).Thus Mr. Reagan's inclusion of throw weight reductions takes account of the most hawkish voices around him without entirely scaring off Moscow.

To be sure, the presidential proposals have gaps. They do not include bombers and intermediate-range cruise missiles in which the US has a lead. However, the conciliatory tone of the President's speech and comments by administration officials suggest the US is prepared to have the Russians bring up these weapons and to negotiate over them.

Democratic leaders, not surprisingly, are jumping on the President's plan. Indeed they are coming up with a plethora of proposals of their own as the nuclear freeze movement gathers force. Enthusiasm is even building for ratification of the SALT II treaty - a pact which the public presciently thought more of than the politicians. Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan early on dubbed the treaty ''fatally flawed,'' so it would be politically difficult for him to ask Senate approval of it now. Yet it would be an act of supreme statemanship to do so. The fact is, both the US and the Soviet Union are abiding by the terms of SALT II - proving that it is not the white elephant it was made out to be.

The need now is to keep up the arms control momentum. Some may wonder whether Mr. Reagan has moved out front on arms primarily as a political tactic to take the heat off the November election race. The President can help dispel such doubts by appointing solid negotiators, putting START in motion, and energetically nudging the talks forward. Past experience indicates the process might well be a long one. The important thing is that there be one.

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