Signs point to movement in US-Soviet arms talks. Shifts take place as pressure mounts in US and Western Europe to reach agreement
Washington — There's a strong desire to secure arms reductions, and there's a strong desire for peace, and there's a strong desire to reduce the number of weapons we need, and a strong desire to eliminate as much defense spending as possible. - US Defense Secretary Weinberger
Considerable stirring - substantive and political - can be seen and felt on arms control these days, perhaps reflecting those strong desires Mr. Weinberger described in a recent Monitor interview.
Some movement (or at least renewed hopes for agreement) is evident at talks to reduce nuclear weapons in Geneva. Democrats this week formally staked out their position in opposition to Reagan administration policies just as a group of Roman Catholic bishops, moving beyond the pastoral letter on nuclear war, specifically criticized the MX missile. Nuclear freeze advocates were momentarily rebuffed in the Senate, but say they will continue to press the issue. And a moving special meeting in the House of Representatives saw children tell of their fears about war.
The common thread in all of this is public concern about the arms race and the response of politicians to it.
''These are all natural instincts of the American people, and indeed of peoples everywhere,'' Mr. Weinberger said in a Monitor interview a few days ago. ''They're all shared.''
He was expressing frustration and sympathy, rebutting the notion that reducing the United States nuclear arsenal (especially halting new weapons like the MX and B-1 bomber) without significant cuts in Soviet strategic forces would bring greater stability. Or that more US ''flexibility'' at Geneva would - by itself - bring an arms agreement and more security for Americans.
But the administration is apparently prepared to give some nonetheless.
US negotiator Edward L. Rowny briefed lawmakers privately Wednesday on chances for success at strategic arms reductions talks (START) at Geneva. He now thinks it is possible that a preliminary agreement setting broad outlines and goals is possible, perhaps before the end of the year. These would be along the lines of a plan worked out by President Ford and the late Soviet president Leonid I. Brezhnev at Vladivostok nine years ago and would facilitate a more specific agreement reducing nuclear arms.
On the parallel Geneva talks on limiting intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the US reportedly is now willing to give some on a key issue: the Soviet SS-20s based in Asia.
The US has been insisting that any US-Soviet balance here must be ''global,'' that is, not just the missiles planned for Europe, or already in place there. Now there is talk of the US retaining at least the right to missile deployments in the Far East in return for Moscow freezing its deployment there. This is a response to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's earlier pledge to ''liquidate'' missiles in Europe rather than simply move them east.
The political aspects of arms control are much evident on both sides of the Atlantic.
In a letter to members of the West German Parliament, Mr. Andropov this week repeated his call for ''a quantitative and qualitative freeze of all nuclear armaments.'' In Washington, officials see this as an attempt to play on European concern about the planned deployment of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in December and not a serious negotiating offer.
His superpower counterpart, meanwhile, is publicly taking a harder line. At a political fund-raising speech in South Carolina, President Reagan told supporters the fact that Moscow continues to negotiate at Geneva is a tribute to his defense policies.
This week, Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Manatt said his party favors a ''mutual and verifiable freeze'' on nuclear weapons testing and production and ratification of the SALT II treaty. This puts the Democrats, as a party, in clear opposition to Reagan on arms control.
Senate action on the House-passed nuclear freeze resolution shows how politically charged the issue is. The Foreign Relations Committee not only rejected the resolution, but could not agree on an arms control plan allowing some new strategic weapons while cutting overall arsenals (the so-called ''build-down'' approach, which has broad support).
And the kind of public concern acknowledged by Weinberger was illustrated in a special meeting of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. Here, an 11-year-old girl from Iowa told lawmakers, ''It's scary to think about the world being destroyed, and nothing is left.''