Cutting nuclear arms: US, Soviets to talk

The United States and the Soviet Union have announced the start of what are likely to be long and difficult negotiations aimed at reducing strategic nuclear weapons.

The talks are to begin in about four weeks--on June 29--in Geneva.

In a Memorial Day address on May 31 at Arlington National Cemetery, President Reagan also announced that the US will refrain from undercutting existing nuclear arms agreements--if the Soviets do so as well.

''With good will and dedication on both sides, I pray that we will achieve a safer world,'' the President declared.

The announcements of new strategic arms control talks and of US adherence to previous nuclear arms agreements set the stage for a 10-day trip to Europe by President Reagan. The President and his advisers want to counter, with a peace offensive of their own, the anti-nuclear movement that has been gathering strength both in the US and in Western Europe.

Rounding out a series of arms control proposals, the President is expected shortly to make public an American plan for reducing conventional, or non-nuclear, forces in Europe. Talks on this subject, held in Vienna over the past nine years, have shown little progress. But some Reagan administration officials now think there is a chance for a negotiating breakthrough.

When it came to the Soviet Union, President Reagan's Memorial Day address was more conciliatory than some which he has made in the past. But he insisted that the US must strengthen its alliances, speak candidly of the dangers that face it , and never underestimate the seriousness of what he called Soviet ''aspirations to global expansion.''

He also said that the ''wide gulf'' in codes of morality between the US and the Soviet Union must not be forgotten.

What President Reagan is proposing for the talks on reducing the long-range nuclear weapons on both sides is deep cuts in such weapons, which would reduce the Soviet Union's advantage in land-based intercontinental missiles. The US argues that these land-based missiles could threaten America's own land-based force and that they are, therfore, the most ''destabilizing'' weapons in the nuclear arsenals of the two sides. But the Soviets are not expected to agree lightly to such a fundamental change in the structure of their forces, particularly in the midst of a period of transition in the Soviet leadership, such as now seems to be occuring. Talks on this subject are thus expected to be difficult.

In announcing that the United States will adhere to restraints set by previous nuclear arms control agreements, the Reagan administration's main concern appears to be public opinion. The administration wants to reinforce President Reagan's image as a peacemaker just prior to his journey to Europe.

The administration also wants to head off moves within the US Congress aimed at formalizing adherence to those SALT II restraints. Some senators and congressmen favor a joint resolution in order to do this. Others, who are clearly in the minority at the moment, want ratification of the 1979 SALT II treaty.

The Reagan administration argues that this 1979 treaty is ''flawed'' and would ''legitimatize'' the Soviet advantage over the US in land-based missiles. Administration officials fear that continued debate over this issue among Americans will undermine any appearance of cohesion on the part of the United States as it enters new strategic arms control negotiations with the Soviets.

The announcement of US adherence to restraints set by previous SALT agreements seemed to mark a minor victory for the State Department over some officials in the Defense Department. Those Defense Department officials, in particular Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, advocated a more limited commitment, which would require the US to adhere only to those parts of the SALT II agreement that contribute to stability. They had feared that adherence to all restraints imposed by previous agreements might end up inhibiting development of the proposed dense-pack system of basing for the MX missile.

But for the moment, the announced adherence to previous restraints will only make explicit what the administration has been doing anyway. For example, when the Navy's new Trident missile-carrying submarine, the USS Michigan, goes out for sea trials shortly, previous agreements would require that an older US submarine be withdrawn from service and dismantled. Officials indicate that this is precisely what will happen.

Meanwhile, the US intelligence community was reported by one official to be divided as to whether or not the Soviet Union is fully observing the restraints imposed by previous agreements.

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