By the end of this week almost everybody will be aware of the United Nations' special session on disarmament that is starting relatively quietly today. Peace marchers are converging on New York by special trains and buses as well as every means of private transportation. Their rally on June 12 ought to hit all the news media.
But whatever lift the conference receives from the expected outpouring of public sentiment, it begins with an unexpected lift from other quarters. After all the verbal missile exchanges, world leaders have joined the peace movement themselves. Deeds will have to accompany words, of course--a responsibility also known to the remotest workers in the ranks of peace. But the climate of leadership, East and West, lets the conference proceed under a break in the nuclear clouds that was not in the long-range forecasts last year.
President Reagan has reaffirmed Washington's adherence to the SALT II treaty he used to belittle. He has announced a date later this month for the beginning of actual arms reductions talks with Moscow. Soviet leader Brezhnev has agreed. No more rearing up against reductions as in the early Carter days, even though the specific US proposal is unacceptable to the Russians.
Meanwhile, the US Congress contemplated various versions of US-Soviet nuclear freezes. And, on the brink of the UN conference, an independent group of international political figures from East and West added to the arms control momentum. Their commission, chaired by former Prime Minister Palme of Sweden, announced support for SALT II, a follow-on treaty for parity at sharply lowered levels, and such initiatives as a nuclear-free zone in Europe.
Steps like these may not go far toward the general disarmament sought through a comprehensive program prepared for discussion at the UN session. The whole proceedings may seem mocked by the still huge and reckless traffic in arms, with Soviet exports reportedly exceeding America's for the first time. The wars between Iran and Iraq, Britain and Argentina, are specific grim reminders of the understatement by the Palme commission: that it backs the goal of complete disarmament but recognizes ''this objective will not be realized in the near future.''
Still, humanity has to start where it is, try to go forward or inevitably go backward. There is no reason for the UN not to build on the modest achievements of the 1978 disarmament session. These included broadened participation, improved mechanisms for discussion, increased activity in the disarmament field. The stage is set for progress toward specifics if nations will subordinate accusations and propaganda to a mutual search for solutions for the good of all.