The Individual: Trying to tame the nuclear monster

Diane Jones - mother of two toddlers, part-time interpreter for Vietnam refugees - helped sew a peace quilt that Boise, Idaho, is giving to a sister Soviet city.

Roger Molander - father of two girls, physicist, former White House aide to three presidents - quit federal service to found Ground Zero, a nonpartisan group publicizing the dangers of nuclear war and the urgent need of arms control.

Lawrence Freedman - father of a one-year-old son, former member of the anti-Vietnam war movement in Britain, current head of the Department of War Studies at King's College, London - wrote one of the best histories of postwar strategic thought.

Benjamin Spock - physician, surrogate father to thousands upon thousands - is promoting a ''people's petition to demand a nuclear-free world'' of Ronald Reagan.

These are individuals who are working actively to tame what they see as the ''nuclear monster.'' They are joined by others, in and out of government - physicists, physicians, unionists, bakers, diplomats, teachers, housewives, businessmen, clerks.

They are all worried. They are all frustrated. They are all battling the greatest threat to mankind's survival in 4 million years. They are facing the biggest challenge to democracy since Athenians came up with the notion of self-government.

They have differing ideas about what the right course is, but they agree on one thing: The ''nuclear monster'' is threatening to slip its leash. It must be securely chained.

The intensity of today's public involvement in the issue represents a sea change. In the 1960s and '70s, apathy was the rule. Policy was left to specialists. And the quarrels among specialists were considered too arcane for the public to be interested or pay much attention. The stratum of cognoscenti was somewhat larger in the United States than in Western Europe, but even here it was still a very narrow elite, indeed.

Now, in the 1980s, the ordinary citizen in Northern Europe and the US has rediscovered that nuclear weapons threaten his existence. He has found that such political and military controls as had been devised to contain the genie are more fragile than he thought. He feels cheated, angry.

In one of the most extraordinary political upheavals, grass-roots voters are rebelling. They are finally insisting that nuclear issues are too important to be left to the experts. They are demanding survival.

In the space of a few months in the US alone some 624 local town meetings or councils have passed nuclear freeze resolutions - a remarkable record for a policy area in which local governments have no authority whatever. Grass-roots antinuclear organizations - not on radical campuses but in the sleepy suburbs of the Midwest and the pro-military South - are springing up faster than anyone can keep track of them.

The bellwether state of California has put a freeze referendum on the ballot for the fall, with double the number of signatures required. More than half a million supporters of disarmament have gathered in New York City's Central Park to protest the official inaction on this issue of life and death.

For classical arms controllers, the new public alarm is something of a relief. They themselves started worrying about new nuclear dangers in the late 1970s - but they found then that their concerns had no public resonance. In politics at that point, the candidate who attacked arms control gained votes. The candidate who supported arms control kept his mouth shut.

Among the classical arms controllers, the most ruthlessly honest ones have always started by admitting how little we know about nuclear war or even just what it is that has made deterrence work in Europe for 37 years.

Nonetheless, Western arms controllers initially thought they had an analytical framework that could sanitize nuclear terror and provide rational policy guidelines for averting catastrophe. Up through the late 1970s there was a core of consensus about the broad elements that induce restraint in use of nuclear weapons - and therefore about goals in strategic arms negotiations. This core was ''mutual assured destruction,'' whether as something desired or as neutral fact.

In the late 1970s and early '80s, however, the consensus began to come apart; doubts crept in about the robustness of assured second strike and therefore of the deterrence erected on this premise. The misgivings arose from the Soviet military buildup and refusal to acknowledge security needs of Soviet neighbors; the feared paralysis of Western coercive means under conditions of effective superpower nuclear parity; the outpacing of painfully slow negotiations by volatile technology; and the torpedoing of any consistent US arms-control policy by America's capricious politics.

The Soviet military buildup, and especially Moscow's seizing of nuclear as well as conventional superiority in the European theater from 1977 on - with the SS-20 missile and a comprehensive reequipping of troops for a strong and highly mobile offensive - aroused fresh suspicions that the Kremlin was not settling for military equivalence, but was straining for a usable superiority.

At the same time, because of the missile and bomber mix each superpower had previously chosen, the technological revolution of accuracy gave the Soviet Union a sudden half-decade lead in theoretical ''first strike'' capability in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) - the most powerful, reliable, and flexible weapons in the present nuclear arsenal.

This was no '''disabling'' first-strike capability across the spectrum of nuclear weapons - and it would still require a madman to initiate a surprise attack on the basis of it. But it raised disturbing questions about how long the Soviet Union could be pragmatically fitted into the Western conceptual framework of nuclear restraint without Moscow's explicit acknowledgment of the dangers of crisis instability - and without greater Soviet moderation in grasping targets of military opportunity abroad.

With this nagging concern, some of the classical arms controllers also began worrying about what had bothered the classical Western hawks for a long time: nullification of Western means of resistance to any Soviet military interventions under a regime of superpower nuclear parity, rather than the former American superiority.

''If the doctrine of mutual assured destruction is adopted in its full-fledged form, it promises a degree of strategic paralysis,'' Laurence Martin commented in the 1981 Reith Lectures.

''Nuclear forces would become good only for neutralizing other nuclear forces. Yet . . . if these weapons are utterly emasculated by deterrence, there could be a reversion to the uninhibited play of more traditional forms of armed force and conflict.''

For Martin, Henry Kissinger, and others, what was particularly troubling were the implied new inhibitions on America's ''extended deterrence'' in Europe. If the US no longer enjoyed the strategic superiority of the 1950s and '60s and even early '70s, then how credible was its ultimate guarantee of European security by its own strategic nuclear forces? Would the US in fact risk and pay the cost of certain destruction of New York to avenge (and therefore avert) the taking of Hamburg or the militarily undefendable enclave of West Berlin?

A third factor weakening the arms control consensus was the whole impact of technological volatility. It was not so much - or not yet at least - the issue of whether ''assured second strike'' could be voided. It couldn't. But the new and soon mutual first-strike capability against powerful and not quite obsolete ICBMs increased the risk of hair-trigger fingers in any unpredictable crisis. Arms control looked increasingly unable to calm reactions at the very time when calm would be most urgently needed: in a period of rising tension.

In addition, the erratic American political system, in its own way, came to appear as incapable of coping with the new demands of a nuclear age as the rigid Soviet political system. SALT I took a crisp three years to negotiate. SALT II took seven years - and ran into the lethal stone walls of two presidential elections. It was defeated not by its own merits or demerits - these played a surprisingly minor role in the whole ratification debate - but by the extraneous Soviet brigade in Cuba, American hostages in Iran, and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The death of SALT II with a whimper in the run-up to the 1980 campaign repeated a pattern going right back to ''the bomber gap'' and ''the missile gap.'' For three decades almost every presidential challenger has effectively promoted his election by attacking the incumbent as soft on the Soviet military threat, arms control, or both.

For three decades every incoming president has then been sobered into seeking Soviet-US arms accommodation by the terrifying responsibility of being able to blow up the Northern Hemisphere, in tandem with the Russians. Yet, unlike the memory built into a parliamentary system, the American political process means each new president has had to learn the same lesson from scratch. Each new president has squandered his most effective first two years in office in the educational process - and has then fallen victim to his successor's charge of softness before he could accomplish anything. The sole exception was Richard Nixon.

The new doubts of the classical arms controllers have therefore been magnified by the worries of democratic theorists. The American political system seems too fickle to support a steady and consistent arms-control policy. And even more fundamentally, the whole nuclear issue seems far too complicated for the general public to deal with intelligently. In a heterogeneous sprawling country like the US the democratic selling of any foreign policy has generally required exaggeration and emotional simplification (and has led to excesses like the McCarthy era in the 1950s and unrealistic hopes for detente in the 1970s). Yet sensible arms control does not easily lend itself to this kind of public relations.

Moreover, even in the most homogeneous nation with the most sophisticated public comprehension of foreign policy, the nuclear age would place extraordinary demands on citizens. The secrecy, complexity, and inscrutability of nuclear-political issues tax even the experts. Yet in the old pinching-shoe analogy today, the poor layman too is expected to penetrate the chaos, and guide the confused specialist cobbler in designing the appropriate policy shoe. And all this under stringent security conditions that have some social analysts speculating whether pluralistic freedom can ever survive nuclear regulations.

Winston Churchill once called democracy the worst system of government there is - except for every other system. He came close to calling the balance of terror, too, the worst system of nuclear-weapons management there is - except for every other system. Together, they make democratic decisionmaking about such weapons one of the most audacious ventures any society has ever embarked on.

It was perhaps for this reason that so many citizens simply abdicated their nuclear responsibility in the '60s and '70s.

With the new public concern about nuclear issues that has finally been aroused in the 1980s, the questions arise: How will the new ferment and yearning for a durable peace affect nuclear arms policy? Will they vindicate democratic theory after all? Will they restore a saner world? Will their new energies force politicians to formulate concrete policies that promote survival? Will they show us a way to turn our balance of terror into something our consciences can live with?

Or will the superpowers conspire to ignore the longing for peace and press on unrestrained with their deadly macho games? Will the Kremlin be content merely with exploitation - and Washington merely with pacifying - grass-roots sentiment in the West without ever really responding to it?

Will the peace movements, in turn, simply promote warm feelings of contradictory righteousness without ever translating this emotion into real policy? Will a tacit alliance of soft-liners and hard-liners unite in collective impatience with anything short of their own utopias to defeat today's very imperfect and difficult but at least realizable arms control?

With some foreboding that the best might thus turn out to be the mortal enemy of the good, Professor Martin described for his Reith listeners the most famous Bairnsfather cartoon of the Great War. In it the ''lugubrious veteran'' Old Bill and ''a raw and nervous recruit'' are ''cowering in a water-logged shellhole in no man's land under a barrage. The recruit complains about their plight and Old Bill replies, 'Well, if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it.' '' Professor Martin reluctantly concluded, ''I have yet to find a better hole than our present balance of power.''

Roger Molander and Lawrence Freedman both hope for something more from the new nuclear consciousness-raising than just obliteration of what Molander and several others call ''the one thing we have going for us,'' deterrence. What they would like to see developed is the creation at long last of an urgently needed political constituency for arms control that has never before existed.

Yet Molander and Freedman regard even this as not enough. Molander calls deterrence ''the best available solution at the moment and something that will be necessary for the very long term.''

Freedman rejoices that the balance of terror has worked to avert wars in Europe ever since 1945. He hopes that deterrence will go on flourishing.

But he resolves: ''Nonetheless we ought to be disturbed by the permanence of nuclear arsenals, having an entrenched position in the international order. . . . An international order that rests upon a stability created by nuclear weapons will be the most terrible legacy with which each succeeding generation will endow the next.

''To believe that this can go on indefinitely without major disaster requires an optimism unjustified by any historical or political perspective.''

All of mankind is still searching for a way out. This is a list of organizations in the United States that provide information or speakers for study groups.

American Friends Service Committee, Disarmament Program, 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102. Quaker-sponsored group promoting disarmament. Tel. (215 ) 241-7000.

Arms Control Association, 11 Dupont Circle NW, Washington D.C. 20036. Tel. ( 202) 797-6450. contact: Robert Scott. Longtime organization promoting arms control.

Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign National Clearing House. 4144 Lindell Boulevard, Suite 404, St. Louis, Mo. 63108. Tel. (314) 533-1169. Coordinates information about grass-roots nuclear freeze campaigns around country.

Ground Zero. 806 Fifteenth Street, NW, Suite 421, Washington, D.C. Tel. (202) 638-7402. Nonpartisan nuclear information group founded by Roger Molander, a specialist in arms control in Nixon's, Ford's, and Carter's National Security Councils.

Physicians for Social Responsibility. 639 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Mass. 02139. Tel. (617) 491-2754. Provides information on the grisly medical consequences of nuclear war.

US Department of Defense. Washington, D.C. Provides information on US-Soviet military balance and nuclear weapons.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.