`Nuclear age'

IT is possible to make too much of the ``nuclear age.'' This is not to take lightly the depth of emotions and personal loss over detonation 40 years ago of nuclear devices over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Certainly it is not to reargue President Truman's decision to conclude the Pacific war with those devastating concussions. Nor to diminish the need to contain the spread of nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race. Under the aegis of the ``awesome'' atom, it is said, there has been no general world war between the superpowers and their camps for four decades. Whether armed conflict has been avoided through sheer fear (``balance of terror'') or rational self-interest (``mutual assured destruction''), the lack of a general war is as much a given today as the launching of the current era by the use of atomic bombs.

The ambivalence and inconsistencies of the nuclear age, however, are only too apparent.

Something of a pagan god has been made of nuclear power, much as earlier peoples deified natural forces they did not understand or control, like the sun, thunder, lightning, the tidal seas.

As if to appease this insatiable nuclear deity, more and deadly nuclear weapons are made and deployed -- as if it must be fed and placated to keep it from unleashing nuclear wrath upon the people.

The dangers of nuclear exchange have not ended militarism itself, or expansion by armed domination, as the Soviet Union is now doing in Afghanistan. Under the spreading nuclear umbrella, conventional weapons proliferate. In the West, governments use military spending as a winch for pulling their economies out of recession, and as a competitive ware for foreign trade. Nuclear equipment that could be used to spread militaristic use of the atom is exchanged for political as well as economic advantage.

Is it to mock or to appease a nuclear god that West and East are embarking on multibillion-dollar versions of ``star wars'' defenses, exploring the use of satellites and lasers and other technologies once only the stuff of science fiction?

The potential for ``nuclear winter'' is only part of what distinguishes the nuclear threat from the general havoc and ruin that followed earlier wars which led to the obliteration of peoples.

This should be sobering. Yet primitive fear of nuclear destruction does not necessarily lead to consistent nuclear policy.

The contradictions between a Hiroshima-awakened reverence for life and the ushering in of an era of nuclear peace by an explosion, and between uttering the precept that nuclear weapons should never be used and making them more abundant and deadly, should be plain to see.

It may well be that the West and East, chiefly the United States and the Soviet Union, are in the midst of a hundred years' competition, if not war. And there are the other rivalries, such as in the Middle East or Asia, potentially as prolonged.

What is needed is a framework for negotiating tensions over longer periods of time -- in the West's case, not just from administration to administration, but over scores of years. Whatever else their sponsors may have in mind, the negotiations under way in Geneva, to be reviewed by Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev in November, fit in this larger context.

Needed even more is a perception that elemental forces -- whether volcanic or nuclear fire -- do not govern mankind. Nuclear weapons in one sense may be only the latest metaphor for the self-destructiveness of human ignorance, hatred, and fear.

Mankind cannot for long be intimidated into peace. The one lasting peaceful governance can only come from mankind's spiritual maturity -- the growth in character, affection, and intelligence that reflect an understanding of a loving God's control of the universe. Forty-year anniversaries are inadequate to measure that progress.

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