WITHOUT much doubt President Reagan would have been happy to kill off the SALT II arms control treaty as he was being urged to do up to the last moment by his secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger. After all, Mr. Reagan had campaigned against the SALT II treaty during the 1980 campaign, just as he campaigned against the treaty with Panama.
But, as in the case of the Panama treaty, the matter of strategic arms limitations can look different from inside the White House. Mr. Reagan has never said a public word against the Panama treaty since he entered the White House or made any serious move to undo it. Now he has decided to let SALT live on in spite of alleged imperfections in the unratified treaty itself and in spite of allegations that the Soviets have been cheating on its provisions.
The reason comes in three parts. You may judge for yourself which reason carried the most weight when the President finally had to make his decision between Mr. Weinberger, who wanted to kill the whole SALT process, and Secretary of State George Shultz, who wants to go on with it.
First, there was a vote in the Senate last Thursday, June 6. The resolution before the chamber was ``whether the US should, through Dec. 31, 1986, continue to refrain from undercutting the provisions of existing strategic arms agreements to the extent that the Soviet Union refrains from undercutting those provisions. . . .''
The resolution is not binding on the administration, but the vote was 90 in favor of continuing to observe the SALT provisions against 5 in favor of ending the whole process. Any president will give serious attention to a vote in the Senate as overwhelming as 90 to 5.
It is a footnote to the Senate vote that public opinion polls have consistently shown a strong balance in favor both of pursuing arms control talks with the Soviets and of honoring those arms control agreements that already exist. It is assumed by all concerned that if the President were to scrap SALT II, the action would put an abrupt end to any prospect of any further arms control agreements with the Soviets. It would mean an open and unrestrained arms race.
Second, the NATO allies are all strongly in favor of continuing the arms control process, both by honoring all existing arms control agreements (insofar as the Soviets honor them) and by pursuing the arms control talks in Geneva. Had Mr. Reagan decided to go against the wishes of his partners in the NATO alliance, he would have handed an enormous propaganda platform to the Soviets.
Repudiation of the arms control process by the US would have revived the peaceniks, and ban-the-bombers, the neutralists, and the marchers. The anti-American forces all over Europe would have been reactivated. The urge to neutralism that is always latent in Europe would have revived. America's best friends in Europe begged the President to keep SALT alive.
Then there was a third and essentially realistic reason. Which side would actually build the new strategic weapons, or weapons of any kind, if the lid were taken off the arms race?
Neither you nor I know for certain the answer to that question. But the people best qualified by training to appraise that answer are the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. They recommended in favor of keeping SALT II, on the ground that it would be easier for the Soviets to increase the number of their strategic missiles than for the US. The Soviets have their assembly lines going. They have bigger launcher missiles than the US. These could be fitted with more warheads.
In the opinion of the military experts, the present SALT rules restrict and limit the Soviets more than they restrict and limit the US. Besides, if the Soviets built many more nuclear warheads for their long-range missiles, the Pentagon would feel forced to try to meet the new Soviet buildup. This could take funds that the Joint Chiefs would rather have for other weapons.
Add that in the present Washington climate dominated by a torrent of reports of defense contract cheating, it would be more difficult for the Pentagon to get extra funds out of Congress than it would be for Moscow to get extra funds.
For these reasons Mr. Reagan continues to observe the SALT II treaty in spite of what he said about it on the hustings before he became President.