ARMS control proponents for the most part sat silenced in front of their televisions as the White House sent its legions of public affairs professionals across the airwaves with briefings, speeches, and interviews aimed at transforming the summit that ended in failure into a tremendous public relations success. Very little from TV Guide will make it into the history books, let alone leave an impression that lasts for more than a few months. And even though legacy is built on deeds, not broadcast-quality 18-second bytes alone, those of us who support arms control cannot afford to take a wait-and-see attitude. We are in the midst of a battle for that section of public opinion which has supported ``star wars'' as a bargaining chip but not necessarily as a deployed system. The public's views on star wars are so volatile that they vary wildly depending on how the question is posed. But one thing is clear: Most people do not favor star wars if it is demonstrated that this means destroying the arms control process.
Not even an artful public relations effort can erase the fact that in Reykjavik, President Reagan had a chance to create a lasting legacy with a visionary arms control treaty; indeed, he was in a better position to do so than any President in the nuclear age, a position analogous to that held by Richard Nixon on China or Lyndon Johnson on civil rights.
Mr. Reagan was presented with the best deal the Russians have offered an American President since they sold us Alaska for a few million dollars: a 50 percent cut in strategic weapons, the removal of all intermediate-range missiles from Europe, and negotiations leading to an eventual halt in all nuclear testing. In return, all the President had to do was commit the United States to continued strict observance of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
But President Reagan remained consistent, stubborn, and wrong. Arms control supporters must take their case to the American people before the facts are buried in the post-summit public relations avalanche.
Fact: Star wars will be exorbitantly expensive to deploy and maintain; experts estimate that the total cost may exceed $1 trillion over a 10-year period. Hence, Reagan's ``insurance policy'' for America has a trillion-dollar deductible to be paid by the American taxpayer and a $4 billion annual premium payable now. If you read the fine print, you'll find that like most insurance policies, it doesn't cover you in the event of nuclear war.
Fact: The President says that under no circumstances will he willingly abandon his vision. At the same time, he tells Congress that it cannot reduce funding for star wars because that would reduce his leverage over the Soviet Union. Star wars has now become the ultimate oxymoron: a nonnegotiable bargaining chip.
Fact: The Soviets did not actually demand the death of star wars. Instead, they said they would agree to drastic arms reductions on both sides as long as the US would not test star-wars components outside the lab for a decade. Many observers note that the ABM Treaty restricts most such tests already, and that star wars research is in such an early stage that it could remain confined to the lab for at least 10 years before field testing would be useful. Field testing now is most useful for creating showy demonstrations designed to entice Congress into further exorbitant funding.
Fact: Star wars is not nonnuclear, as the President claims. The Reagan adminstration requested more than $600 million this year for research into X-ray lasers powered by hydrogen bombs far more powerful than the weapon dropped over Hiroshima, while simultaneously developing orbiting nuclear reactors to power star-wars battle stations.
We all know that Ronald Reagan likes to rush headlong into contradictions and blame the Democrats for his failures. He wants massive military spending and no deficit; he wants star wars and arms reductions. The challenge is to explain why we cannot have it both ways.
The choice before Congress and the American people is clear: Do we want star wars or arms control? The Soviets are not forcing this choice upon us. It is a choice dictated by human reason, by the dictates of a fragile and hard-fought arms control structure, and by a yearning for stability and peace which cannot be stifled by slick public relations campaigns.
The President still has an opportunity to bring Mikhail Gorbachev back to the table and to sign an agreement based on the principles outlined at Reykjavik. If he doesn't make that choice, the American public can make it for themselves in the coming elections.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D) of Massachusetts is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power.