Arms breakthrough

DEAR Mr. President: As you prepare to confer in Geneva, you seem well attuned to the desires of your countrymen for an easing of tensions between East and West.

And your stated objective of actually bringing about mutual reduction in nuclear arms naturally evokes widespread support.

Most people agree, too, that it's good that you and Mikhail Gorbachev are coming together to talk.

But apart from the public's debate over the wisdom of pushing for a nuclear shield and public differences over whether the United States should be tough or conciliatory with the Soviets, there is an overriding skepticism, shading toward cynicism, among Americans over the prospect of a defusing of the nuclear threat. Are you aware of this?

A reporter moving about various sections of the US did find much hope expressed in a general way about the summit. Most Americans are hopeful people. But when asked what their realistic expectations are for the summit -- wholly apart from their hopes -- people have a different answer:

They don't expect too much from this or later summits. There is persuasive evidence that indicates a large segment of the population now think it inevitable that the nuclear bomb will be exploded at some point. Indeed, there is a feeling among a many Americans that we are sliding toward a nuclear war and that there is little likelihood the two sides can do much about it.

Most Americans blame the Soviets for this polarization. And most Americans favor the buildup in defense that, as they see it, permits you to stand up to Mr. Gorbachev.

They think that the United States' best chance of keeping the Soviets from staging a nuclear attack is to keep a nuclear edge over them.

You talk of ``star wars'' and its defense shield as being a possible answer to the fix we're in -- something that holds the potential for permitting all nations to rest securely from nuclear attack. Yet we don't know whether it will work.

And even if there would be scientific breakthroughs that would make this defense system workable, it seems that the earliest it could be put into place would be about the turn of the century.

What Americans need -- what the world needs -- is for something to happen at this summit that would alter expectations -- not necessarily to rosy hues, but certainly away from this widespread skepticism.

Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Reagan, the Soviets are ready to let peace break out, at least slightly. Maybe, so as to devote more money to provide consumer goods, Gorbachev is ready for some kind of thaw.

Maybe you and the Soviets can find within your offers and counteroffers on missile cutbacks an agreement that would substantially reduce nuclear arsenals on both sides.

Happy smiles or lack of happy smiles between you and Gorbachev won't make much difference to the world that is watching. An agreement to meet again next year won't, of itself, help much. But it would make a great difference if you two leaders could make it clear that:

You have both decided that a nuclear confrontation very likely lies ahead unless mutual action is taken to avert this disaster.

You have agreed on mutual cuts in the nuclear arsenals.

More than rhetoric along these lines would be needed to provide credibility for such an agreement. Above all, provisions for verification of reductions would have to be agreed to. Beyond that, of course, there would have to be an agreement that the cuts would take effect within, say, the next 12 months.

As you go into your meetings, Mr. President, you should know that something along this line -- something that goes far beyond just a friendly meeting or an agreement in principle to work toward cutting arms -- is needed to change expectations and make your countrymen feel that the US and the Soviets have finally agreed to turn back from the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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