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What Now on Arms Control?

Negotiating one hairpin curve along a tricky road, no matter how smartly it is done, will not always get you where you want to be. President Reagan’s decision to abide by the SALT II arms control treaty took care of one such curve but the trip is just staring.

He will observe the treaty, for now, by decommissioning a Poseidon submarine this fall to keep the United States under the treaty’s limits on missiles with more than one warhead. But that decision simply extends an old arms control treaty that will die at the end of this year anyway. The important question is the next treaty and how his decision will affect the chances of getting one that will slow down the arms race.

Reagan put the Soviets on notice that what happens in Geneva will depend, in part, on how they respond to American accusations that they are cheating on provisions of SALT II and other treaties. That could produce a dead end just beyond the hairpin curve. We say they are building one more new breed of missile than SALT II allows; they deny it. We suspect a radar station they are building in Siberia; they say, not to worry. We say they are scrambling signals dispatched from test missiles; they say treaty language allows that.

Not all of the cheating charges are clear-cut. The Siberian radar, specialists say, is a violation of the ABM treaty on ballistic missile defenses, but it is to no purpose because in its present form it could not guide defensive weapons to incoming missiles. Does that makes the Soviets devious or dumb?

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Arms control negotiations succeed only when both powers want them to and when the talks focus on important issues--how many missiles and warheads on each side and what mix, if any, of offensive and defensive weapons.

The President’s decision was right, and in the atmosphere of Administration infighting between those who want no arms control at all and those who want to try for restraint in the nuclear age, courageous. He has given both powers a few more months in which to test whether the will exists to get into serious talks about the future and away from quarrels about the past. A decision to break through the ceiling on missiles would have made serious talks about future treaties impossible. What he chose to do makes those talks possible, but it goes not guarantee that the will exists to work for them.


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