IT was news of a different kind recently when the United States Senate ratified START I, a historic nuclear arms agreement, with a handful of dissenting votes and scant media notice. The talk these days is not of how to count missiles, but how to cut them up. The aim is no longer simply to slow an ever-accelerating arms race, but to bring it to a full stop.
The cold war's end has diminished the passion that animated millions of Americans and others worldwide to join the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s. But one in whom that passion still burns is Daniel Ellsberg, who first gained fame when, as a senior defense planner two decades ago, he revealed the secret US war plans for Vietnam that became known as the Pentagon Papers.
Today, Mr. Ellsberg leads a quiet crusade of a different sort. He is using the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Manhattan Project that gave birth to the nuclear age to call for an equivalent summoning of will to bring the world to the "near-abolition" of nuclear weapons.
It is a measure of how far we have come that Ellsberg's visionary aspiration is now the base line for the most sober-minded analysts of arms control. From a peak of more than 50,000 strategic nuclear weapons a few years ago, most experts believe that the world's arsenal can now safely and practically be brought down from its present level of about 25,000 to a few thousand or less within the next decade.
Yet this is far from a foregone conclusion, Ellsberg warns. Growing political instability in Russia and deepening suspicions between the four nuclear-armed republics of the former Soviet Union have combined to slow progress on START II. Based on an agreement signed last June by President Bush and Soviet President Boris Yeltsin, that treaty would reduce the Russian and American strategic arsenals of about 11,000 (Russia) and 12,000 (US) to some 3,500 each by the year 2003. But Mr. Yeltsin has come under i ncreasing pressure from military hard-liners in the Russian Parliament to insist that Russian SS-18 and SS-19 missile silos be retained.
More troubling are signs that the agreement between the four former Soviet republics possessing strategic nuclear weapons (Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus) may be shakier than hoped. In Lisbon last May, the four agreed to cede jurisdiction of these weapons to the Commonwealth of Independent States and to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But, other than Russia, only Kazakhstan has ratified START I and only Russia has signed the NPT. Russia probably won't move ahead with START II un til its chief rival, Ukraine, signs the treaty. But the Ukrainian parliament resists relinquishing its talismans of power.
THERE is also an alarming possibility that in the desperate economic circumstance of the moment nuclear devices and materials will leak from the nuclear republics to nearby nations such as Iran or be used in civil or intra-republic wars. The Russian military is rumored to be especially interested in retaining tactical nuclear weapons and the right to use them first in its ongoing struggle with rival republics.
Ellsberg believes that this makes it all the more vital that strong agreements with rigorous verification and enforcement measures soon be enacted. His Manhattan Project II, endorsed by more than 50 organizations, ranging from Greenpeace to the YWCA and the American Baptist Churches, reflects a consensus among arms controllers in calling for a permanent ban on nuclear tests worldwide, cutting superpower warheads to 1,000 each, adopting no-first-use of nuclear weapons, eliminating all tactical weapons by 2000, and ending production of fissile materials for weapons.
"Trust but verify," Ronald Reagan used to say. Verifying compliance with arms-control agreements becomes increasingly important as the numbers of weapons diminish, though not critical until in the hundreds or fewer. START I establishes teams of monitors from each superpower to inspect the dismantlement of the other's weapons. But the system is still far from adequate for the range of tasks required to effectively monitor global nuclear disarmament.
Progress on a more rigorous and comprehensive verification system has been stalled for years by the reluctance of the superpowers (now chiefly the US) to accept intrusive inspection of their own facilities. But no nation can be expected to accept being inspected while being refused the right to inspect its rivals. And why would a nation refuse if it had nothing to hide?
START I calls for the dismantling of missiles and their launchers; but significantly, it does not call for dismantling their warheads. The bombs themselves go into storage, from which they can be taken at a future date if political winds shift. Stripped of their launchers, they could not instantly be fired, but their existence is a continuing temptation. By hedging their bets, the superpowers have left a large loophole in the disarmament process through which threats could re-emerge.
Despite these and other lingering perils, most arms controllers these days believe that nuclear weapons are on their way out and will one day "rust in peace."
Ambassador Jonathan Dean, a veteran US negotiator at conventional arms talks in Europe and now a senior adviser with the Union of Concerned Scientists, speaks with satisfaction of the progress made in recent years. But he stresses that nuclear nations won't relinquish their weapons altogether until a "true functioning international security system" is in place, a "great divide" that Mr. Dean believes will not be crossed very soon.