The US-Soviet SDI debate: what it's all about

THE best way to get into perspective what did and didn't happen at Reykjavik and all the discussions since is to start with where all this began, which was the Cuban missile crisis. Take your mind back for a moment to 1962. Nikita Khrushchev was head man in Moscow and a gambler. He gambled that he could plant intermediate-range Soviet missiles in Cuba, where they would have sufficient range to reach all those portions of the United States which Soviet missiles based in Russia could not yet reach. Besides, there was no early-warning system protecting the southwest approaches to the US, as there was covering the northeastern approaches.

The strategic balance of power in the world would have been altered importantly to Moscow's advantage, had the US allowed Mr. Khrushchev to achieve his purpose.

The US did not allow it. In effect, President John Kennedy said to Mr. Khrushchev, ``either you remove those missiles (some of which had been landed in Cuba but not yet set up in firing position) and take them back to Russia, or we will come in and take them out for you.''

The ultimatum was backed up with full force. The US Atlantic fleet moved into blocking positions around Cuba. US Airborne divisions moved to their takeoff fields. Bombers and fighters flew from all over the world to the fields from which they could attack Cuba. Everything was set for American armed forces to go into Cuba and get those missiles, and block the arrival of any more.

At that moment Mr. Khrushchev blinked. He agreed to take the missiles back to the Soviet Union. Back they went -- exposed on the open decks of Soviet ships (part of the agreement) so they could be counted from the air by American pilots -- and back those ships sailed, up the English Channel for all Europe to see, back up through the North Sea, and back into the Baltic and home.

It was the biggest humiliation of a major power since World War II. All the world could see that the Soviets had backed down. And all the world knew that they backed down because the US had a decisive military advantage over the Soviet Union. In 1962 the US enjoyed superiority over the Soviets in nuclear weapons, in bombers, and in naval forces. The US was the only true global military power. The Soviets were a regional power, not a global power.

The Soviets backed down in the Cuban missile crisis, but they resolved that never again would they find themselves in a position of such military inferiority. They got rid of Nikita Khrushchev, installed Leonid Brezhnev in his place, and settled down to achieving military equality or better.

By 1972 they were moving up so fast that President Richard Nixon had to decide whether to race them or enter into an agreement with them to settle back into a situation of military ``equivalence'' at roughly the levels then existing. He chose to settle for ``equivalence.'' That was SALT I, signed in Moscow after Mr. Nixon had gone to China, reopened US relations with Peking, and brought China back into the power balance on the American side.

But would the Soviets stop at ``equivalence''? They kept building. And they began to use their new military strength. They went into Angola in 1975, into Ethiopia and Mozambique in 1977, into Afghanistan in 1979. At that point President Jimmy Carter decided that he had to start up the American arms factories again and race for an improved US military position.

President Reagan then picked up the rebuilding task, virtually doubled the goals, and tossed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'') into the equation.

We are now at the point where both Moscow and Washington must decide whether to go into another round of arms racing or try for a mutually tolerable balance.

Reykjavik was a wild, unplanned, risky plunge into exploring the possibilities. Both sides proposed steps from which both are pulling back now. The main sticking point is over SDI. The Russians are apparently ready to cut far back (how far is still open for negotiation) in all types of nuclear weapons -- provided the US will give up SDI. Mr. Reagan says he can't give up SDI, arguing that it is for defense only.

But the Soviets see SDI as a device that could wipe out all their gains since the Cuban missile crisis and put them back into the condition of inferiority that exposed them to the humiliation of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Would it? I will discuss that on this page on Tuesday next.

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