The Soviet arms expert had been badgering his visitors from the United States for half an hour. Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev, he said, had offered to ban all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Why didn't the US agree? How could the US turn down a proposal so self-evidently wise, so peacelike, so farseeing ...? ``All right, suppose we go along,'' said an exasperated American. ``We sign a treaty and burn our weapons, tomorrow. But tell me this. When it is over, will you believe we have really destroyed them all?''
The Soviet host said nothing.
The point of this little scene, recounted by a recent visitor to the Soviet Union, is that a world without nuclear weapons is not necessarily one without mistrust. Superpower suspicions could well prove harder to eradicate than the Bomb.
And many strategic analysts believe that if such tensions persisted, a professed non-nuclear superpower relationship could well be more dangerous than the one that exists today.
``It is not clear to me that getting rid of nuclear weapons would make the world safer,'' says Robert Art, an international relations professor at Brandeis University.
It is probably fair to say that this is not the intuitive position of the average American. It is not the point of view of anti-nuclear activists, who stress that nuclear weapons are a cause of poor superpower relations as much as a symptom.
The strategists' line of reasoning begins with the truism that it is impossible to eradicate the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons from men's minds. That is one genie that will never be put back in its bottle.
Given this knowledge, the temptation for a superpower to cheat on a nuclear ban would be very great. Think of the incentive: In a world that was allegedly non-nuclear, a nation that suddenly unveiled one nuclear missile would be the most powerful on earth.
Even a nation that was pure in heart and motive might feel compelled to secrete a bomb or two, out of fear that the other guy was planning to break the agreement.
At the very least, prudence would require that nuclear production be ready to resume on a moment's notice.
And so a secret or quasi-secret arms race could rise out of a flash of suspicion. It would likely be more dangerous than today's spiral, say strategic analysts, because its potential for nasty surprises and hasty decisions would be so much greater.
It might also involve more countries than just the US and the Soviet Union. After all, China, France, Great Britain, and other nuclear powers would have to join in a disarmament pact if it were to have any meaning to begin with.
``An agreement for total nuclear disarmament will almost certainly degenerate into an unstable rearmament race,'' writes former defense secretary Robert McNamara.
One criticism of the above chain of logic made by some of the activists who favor abolition of nuclear weapons is that it is too narrow.
It simply assumes the continuation of superpower antagonism, when in fact the weapons are a main cause of that antagonism. In other words, take away the Bomb and both sides will get along well enough so that each will worry less about what the other is doing.
Some of the most dangerous squabbles of the post World War II era have occurred over the weapons themselves, says Institute for Policy Studies analyst William Arkin. Without nuclear weapons there never would have been a Cuban missile crisis.
If all the world's nuclear weapons were destroyed, a great philosophical shift would take place, say antinuclear scholars. Rational leaders would realize that the Bomb is not a weapon but an instrument of suicide and would have no incentive to rebuild their warheads. They would know that even if one superpower unveiled a small surprise arsenal and devastated the other, reconstruction and retaliation would eventually follow. It would only be a matter of time.
An irrational leader, perhaps a terrorist madman, might still wave a nuclear bomb about for purposes of blackmail. But such a leader could be flattened with conventional weapons as well as nuclear ones, according to antinuclear logic. In any case, because he is irrational, the chances of such a thing happening today are just as great as they would be under a nonnuclear pact.
Of course, it is one thing to discuss what a nuclear-free world would be like. It is perhaps harder to say how the world would get there.
The path to disarmament would undoubtedly be arduous. Is there any way out of the nuclear predicament?
Monday: How to disarm