Books on nuclear issues

It's been a prolific year for defense analysts. The 40th anniversary of the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan and the growing debate over President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative have given defense writers extra incentive to lay out their views on deterrence, strategic defense, and the various strengths and weaknesses of the United States nuclear arsenal. What follows is a sampling of a few of the books published so far this year dealing with these issues. The Age of Vulnerability: Threats to the Nuclear Stalemate, by Michael Nacht. Washington: The Brookings Institution. 201 pp. $26.95.

Michael Nacht, who teaches national security policy and public management at the University of Maryland, has put together a clearly written defense of the doctrine of deterrence. Under this doctrine, each superpower's ability to retaliate after absorbing a first strike is presumed to prevent the other from striking first.

Nacht says there are seven conditions that could undermine deterrence if not carefully managed: Soviet insecurity; America's desire to see itself a champion of world peace while also wanting military strength second to none; technology's effect on weapon accuracy; the gap between the nuclear strategy outlined by politicians and the one that emerges from the military; the difficulty of sustaining public support for arms control; the US need to keep its allies in mind when formulating nuclear policies; an d nuclear proliferation.

After examining trends in each of these areas, Nacht concludes that ``it will take truly revolutionary technological innovation or a massive exercise of human stupidity before this stalemate [deterrence] is seriously threatened.'' This despite the ``deeply competitive nature of US-Soviet relations and the major strides in weapon-system technology taken by both countries.'' As a result, he pronounces deterrence sound and worth preserving.

Seen in the context of the debate over strategic defenses, in which some argue that deterrence is too fragile to rely on to avert nuclear war, this book provides useful insights into the thinking behind the doctrine and why its advocates are battling to preserve it. Hawks, Doves, and Owls: an Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War, by Allison, Carnesale, Nye, et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 246 pp. $14.95.

``Hawks, Doves, and Owls'' represents an attempt to break out of the military strength vs. disarmament mind-sets that have so dominated public debates about the surest road to peace. The authors argue that another way to approach the problem is to ask: What are the general paths that could lead to nuclear war? What are the factors along each path that affect the likelihood of war? And what actions could be taken to reduce that likelihood?

When the authors apply those questions to the superpowers' nuclear standoff, they conclude that the so-called hawks and doves fail to pay enough attention to the owls (those who say that war can start through miscalculation or loss of control). As a result, the book's agenda recognizes a need to maintain a credible nuclear and conventional deterrent, as well as a need for willingness to negotiate arms control agreements. But it also outlines a number of ways to reduce misperceptions, strengthen control over the use of nuclear weapons, reduce the chance for accidental launches, and provide for ways to quickly end a nuclear war should one begin. Perhaps the most provocative recommendation is to intensify the search for an alternative to deterrence. Although they don't rule out technology, the three main authors see an alternative coming more from political changes.

Some people may dismiss some of the proposals as politically naive or impractical. But that is no reason to dismiss the book. Its value lies in the encouragement it offers to people trying to puzzle their way through the most crucial issue of our time. The authors suggest an overarching frame of reference: ``In confronting the awesome challenge of avoiding nuclear war, the end as well as the beginning of wisdom is neither fear nor courage; it is humility.'' Preventing Nuclear War, by Barry M. Blechman, et al. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press. 163 pp. $22.50.

Edited by Barry Blechman, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies, this volume provides a good companion to ``Hawks, Doves, and Owls'' because it focuses more specifically on the owls' approach to avoiding nuclear war. In fact, there is some cross-fertilization between the two books: Two authors who contributed to this book also wrote chapters for ``Hawks, Doves, and Owls.''

``Preventing Nuclear War'' examines four broad categories of ways to reduce the risk of war: Improve communications links between the US and USSR; exchange more information about strategies and doctrine; agree on joint means to deal with nuclear threats from terrorists or other third parties; and agree to adopt certain physical means to reduce the risk of inadvertent or accidental nuclear war.

In addition, one chapter provides a useful summary of 22 treaties or international agreements that the US and USSR have signed. It includes a brief section on how well the two superpowers have complied with the treaties.

This book rambles at times but contains enough thought-provoking ideas to make for worthwhile reading. How to Make Nuclear Weapons Obsolete, by Robert Jastrow. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 224 pp. $15.45.

There is plenty of room for a thoughtful, readable defense of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as ``star wars.'' But Dr. Jastrow, who teaches physics at Dartmouth College and who served the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with distinction during the Apollo program, hasn't provided it. His book is readable; it's also too simplistic.

The book has its strengths. Jastrow is very good at explaining in layman's terms the principles behind the technologies being explored for a ballistic-missile defense. And he does a good job at poking holes in the arguments of some of SDI's more extreme critics, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists. But when it comes to more widely shared uncertainties -- such as the ability of researchers to weld all the weapons, sensors, and computers together into a working system -- he seems too glib.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.