Americans and arms - as seen by a former ambassador to Moscow

Americans face a fateful choice on which their survival could well depend. They must either play a bigger role in decisions about nuclear weapons or continue to allow politics and technology to push us closer and closer to the brink of nuclear war.

From the very beginning, it has been hard to bring technical expertise together with the political wisdom necessary to steer the world away from a holocaust. Americans and Soviets failed to bring the atomic bomb under international control, we failed to head off the hydrogen bomb, and we failed to see the fallacy and danger of improving our nuclear weapons in order to make them useful for political purposes. Thus we have driven each other into a very dangerous situation while thinking we were improving our security.

At the beginning, neither politicians nor experts fully understood the ramifications of nuclear weapons. Later, the technical experts began to spin out their theories in impenetrable jargon. Now it is time to think about these matters in terms of common sense rather than gobbledygook. What are the basic facts of life in the nuclear era?

First, most of us understand the power of the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Hiroshima, 70,000 people died instantly or soon after the attack with a single primitive bomb. Many others later died of disease. The power of that bomb was equal to 15,000 tons of TNT. The US Titan missile carries a warhead 600 times more powerful than that used on Hiroshima, and the Soviets have deployed even larger warheads.

Second, these weapons of immense destructive power have multiplied beyond any conceivable level necessary for deterrence. There are about 50,000 nuclear weapons in the world today; the United States possesses 30,000, the USSR has 20, 000, and England, France, and China have a few hundred. The US and the USSR each have about 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads in land-based silos and submarines, and the US has an additional 2,000 on bombers. If the Soviets were deprived of all but 1 percent of their warheads, they could still destroy 70 American cities. And the same applies to US forces.

Third, the capacity of technology for improving these weapons is truly impressive - and frightening. Both countries have deployed multiple warheads on many of their missiles, as many as 14 on some US missiles. While some may be turned off or misled by the jargon term ''MIRV'' (for multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle), the fact is that this invention multiplied the destructive power of each side's forces many times over and greatly increased instability. But MIRVs are not the newest technology. The new US Pershing II missiles scheduled for deployment in Europe at the end of this year will be equipped with maneuverable reentry vehicles or MARVs. Here, as in so many other cases, technological momentum seems to outpace common sense or even comprehension.

Yet the MIRV case illustrates the importance of thinking ahead about the implications of technological advances. When the US first put multiple warheads on its missiles, they gave it an advantage over the Soviets. But once the Soviets developed and deployed them, US land-based missiles became theoretically more vulnerable to a possible Soviet attack. This because one missile could destroy several. Thus, in part, the ''window of vulnerability'' was of our own making, and the fact that the window is largely an illusion does not obscure the reality that this illusory window has driven our security policy for many years.

The US should draw the proper lessons and think carefully about the consequences before deploying new technological innovations. Furthermore, it should examine possibilities of iron-clad treaties to ban those weapons which would harm rather than increase security.

Fourth, not all technological innovations are dangerous; some are benign and useful. For example, the development of satellite reconnaissance enabled the US and the Soviet Union to bypass the issue of on-site inspection which had blocked effective arms-control efforts since 1946. The deployment of strategic missile-carrying submarines, which cannot be destroyed in a first strike, was beneficial, and the new Trident submarine force is certainly a much safer step than building the MX.

But sea-launched and ground-launched cruise missiles (small, low-flying unmanned jet aircraft with great accuracy and destructiveness) should be viewed with great concern since they will be impossible to verify, no matter how many satellites we have. If we don't negotiate a complete ban, we will never know how many a potential enemy has deployed or where. Many say this move cannot be stopped but if we were convinced that the deployment would do us no long-term good and the Soviets felt likewise, it is certainly possible to avoid deployment.

And that brings us to the fifth point: the importance of the negotiations which have been conducted for over 13 years by American-Soviet representatives. Significant agreements have been concluded: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Interim Agreement on Offensive Forces, and the SALT II Treaty. Despite the fact that the US government has declined to ratify SALT II, both the US and USSR continue to observe many of its provisions. Much time has been wasted haggling over minor points. Whether the haggling is deliberate foot-dragging or real concern over secondary issues, the basic realities argue for an urgent and determined negotiating effort.

What can individual Americans do to produce saner policies for dealing with the threat of nuclear war?

The US democratic system is a marvelous one for achieving solutions to political problems. It works out compromises among conflicting groups which are reasonably well aware of their interests and informed about the options. It works best on domestic issues which affect large numbers of voters. It works least well on foreign policy and security issues, particularly those where individual interests are not clear or where the subject matter is too complex for nonspecialists to understand.

In particular, nuclear issues have been thought beyond the ken of individual citizens. But we can no longer afford the luxury of unconcern or laziness. Every individual clearly has a stake in the survival of our civilization. Every individual can cut through the gobbledygook and master the basic facts needed for a responsible policy. And every individual has the obligation to serve our democracy by insisting that our government pursue a policy soundly based on those facts.

That means rejecting the seductive approach of ever greater reliance on nuclear weapons, and insisting on negotiating seriously to stop and roll back the US-Soviet arms race. It also means doing the homework necessary to make sure we maintain a deterrent which in fact deters nuclear attack, such as a strong submarine force, rather than inviting it, as would the MX missile. And it means supporting any sacrifices necessary to maintain a strong non-nuclear defense force.

That is asking a lot of Americans, who already have a lot of things on their minds. But in view of what is at stake, it is not asking too much.

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