A world without nuclear weapons sounds like a state of grace, compared with the current condition. Is there any way to reach that world? Would it actually be safer than today's? Clearly the knowledge of how to construct nuclear warheads will be forever in men's minds. To many people, the arms arsenals themselves seem similarly immortal.
As a symbol of the technological persistence of nuclear weapons, consider what happens to United States warheads when they become obsolete or reach the end of their useful lives. They are not thrown away so much as reincarnated.
When these weapons are retired, as they are every day at the Pantex weapons plant near Amarillo, Texas, parts such as casings and electronics can be simply shredded and buried. But the radioactive core is too expensive and dangerous to dispose of, and instead is recycled into the next generation of weapons.
Thus the plutonium 239 in Titan 2 missiles now being dismantled may become the fissionable soul of tomorrow's MX missile. Thirty years from now it may be transformed into an X-ray laser, and so on, in a progression stretching as far as military planners can imagine.
Will there ever be an end to this line of arms? Do people want it to end? Almost everyone who lays claim to being an expert on the superpower balance will preface opinions with a perfunctory reference to the desirability of a nuclear-free world.
The fact is that most of them don't really mean it, except as the longest of long-term goals. Since the early 1960s, the conventional wisdom of the present and former US officials who are called ``the strategic community'' has been that talking about complete disarmament is not quite respectable.
The only people clamoring to turn all nuclear weapons into dust are the most liberal of the peace-group activists - and President Reagan and his loyal followers. (Of course, these opposite political poles differ wildly in how this nirvana is to be reached, and what it will look like when people get there.)
Since the Strategic Defense Initiative was launched in 1983, the President has stubbornly insisted that its goal is to make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete, nothing less. At the Iceland demi-summit he apparently discussed, albeit reluctantly, the possibility of scrapping all nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.
The Iceland discussions in particular have galvanized debate in the West about nuclear disarmament. The vast and respectable middle ground of former defense secretaries, think-tank scholars, and European ministers has responded with dozens of opinion and editorial pieces saying it would be a bad thing to rid the world of nuclear arms.
Their arguments, to nonexperts, may seem puzzling. If nuclear war is the worst event imaginable, how can getting rid of the weapons decrease security?
To understand why nuclear strategists think as they do, and why such abolitionists as antinuclear writer Jonathan Schell hold to their own visions of the future, it is helpful to look not just at where they end up, but at where they begin.
Political positions on the abolition of nuclear weapons depend crucially on answers to such questions as why there has not been a general war in Europe in the last 40 years. Are nuclear weapons a cause of bad relations between the superpowers, or a symptom? If a nuclear war did begin, how bad would things get before it ended?
The following points will give a rough idea of where the poles of debate are on these issues. ``Strategists'' refers to the bulk of arms analysts, who feel nuclear weapons are necessary for the foreseeable future.
``Abolitionists'' refers to peace groups that favor making the complete banning of the bomb an explicit government goal, now. Within each group there are many shades of belief, so the positions presented here are of necessity simplistic.
Strategists feel that if both the US and the Soviet Union scrapped their nuclear arms, the chances of a conventional World War III on European soil would greatly increase. They say they would rather run the tiny risk of nuclear catastrophe, an admittedly horrific prospect, than a larger risk of a World War II rerun, which they feel would be terrible enough.
Abolitionists feel that this point of view overestimates the Soviet Union's desire to invade Western Europe. They say disarmament would not increase the chances of general war very much.
On the other hand, abolitionists argue, people must assume that the use of nuclear weapons in anger means the end of the world.
There is a chance, they say, that wide-scale explosion of warheads would lead to the environmental catastrophe known as nuclear winter, and that because the stakes are so high, people cannot gamble that such an event might not occur.
Strategists believe that while nuclear war would be a catastrophe beyond history, in a famous phrase, this does not mean people must operate on the principle that it would be the end of all life. They feel that any nuclear exchange might well be a limited one, and that it is not self-evident that such a war will eventually happen just because the weapons exist.
Finally, strategists say that if all nuclear weapons disappeared tomorrow, the US and the Soviet Union would still be bitter rivals, and the result would be a world of great tension and suspicion, for in a world of no nuclear weapons, the nation that cheated and acquired just one would be king.
Abolitionists retort that if both sides disarmed, relations between the superpowers would greatly improve, since the fierce arsenals themselves cause much of the friction between the two countries.
Many present and former government officials, even those who are sharply critical of President Reagan's defense policies, consider theorizing about a nuclear-free world to be as big a waste of time as promoting the language Esperanto.
Their reason is not so much the problems that would occur in a nuclear-free world, which they feel are considerable, as the sheer political impracticality of all programs for achieving the goal.
``I just don't see how you get there,'' says McGeorge Bundy, national-security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Most of the peace movement devotes its energies not to promoting disarmament per se, but to achieving intermediate steps, like the nuclear freeze and a comprehensive test ban.
Those who do promote disarmament contend that it's time to get past the interminable fights on such points as how to base the MX missile, and push for a public debate on the larger question of what sort of world people are aiming for.
Freeman Dyson, a Princeton physics professor who writes widely on nuclear issues, concludes: ``The sooner we all start thinking realistically about the challenges and difficulties of the non-nuclear world, the sooner we may have a chance to bring it into existence.'' First of a series