ARMS : A Trajectory of Talk

Thomas Powers, whose most recent book is "Thinking About the Next War," is now working on a history of strategic weapons

Somewhere in Washington a few dozen people at most know whether President Ronald Reagan really wants to reach an agreement with Mikhail S. Gorbachev to get rid of nuclear missiles in Europe. A similar number in Moscow presumably know whether Gorbachev really wants the same thing. Of two things we can be sure: It won't happen unless they really do, and the few dozens who share their confidence will invite no kibitzing in handling the details.

Gorbachev and Reagan have both committed themselves to "getting rid of nuclear weapons," though the professional military men and civilian defense analysts on both sides would be shocked out of their wits to discover that either really expected--or wanted--it to happen. But grant they're serious all the same. In that case what they're really after is hard to explain, hard to defend in public in terms anybody can remember for 10 minutes and very likely just as hard to obtain as "getting rid of nuclear weapons."

Gorbachev began the current round of talks on Jan. 15, with a grand proposal to rid the world of nuclear weapons by the turn of the century, starting with Soviet and U.S. weapons in Europe. Reagan responded by letter Feb. 22, with a three-year proposal to get rid of medium-range missiles--the 441 Soviet SS-20 missiles in Europe and Asia, in exchange for 572 U.S. missiles of two different types currently being deployed in Europe. The Soviets wanted a freeze on new French and British missiles; Reagan said no, let's leave them out of it. The initial Soviet response was something between a sigh and a grumble. There are complications enough in these early exchanges to keep the two sides talking for a year or two, if that's what they want.

But what do they want? Getting rid of nuclear weapons is out of the question. The military men on both sides have lost their capacity to imagine the world without them. They have built their plans around too many warheads, of too many different types, for too many purposes, to go back to scratch. A rough freeze of current types at current levels is militarily possible but politically impossible. Extension of the force levels established by the unratified SALT II Treaty, a renewed commitment to stick with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 and a decision to join the Soviet moratorium on nuclear testing would do the trick nicely and put a roadblock in the way of "Star Wars" deployment as well. But that is not what Reagan wants. What he says he wants is a 50% reduction in strategic systems already deployed--something he might get in exchange for a ban on "Star Wars." But Reagan insists he wants "Star Wars" too. This has all the earmarks of a horse trade in the making, or a serious impasse. The ordinary citizen, having watched one potential horse trade after another come to nothing, may be forgiven for wondering what the horse-traders really want--since it never seems to be the horse at hand.

"This stuff is soporific," said Deputy Defense Secretary Richard N. Perle at a January, 1984, meeting on arms control. "It puts our society to sleep. It does violence to our ability to maintain adequate defenses."

As an official in the Pentagon, Perle has energetically opposed "agreement for agreement's sake"--the temptation to sign some sort of treaty on arms simply because it would be politically popular. Perle's opinion carries weight because he has Caspar W. Weinberger's ear, and no treaty on arms could ever be ratified over the dead body of the secretary of defense. Perle and other officials believe--more or less correctly--that the American public hates thinking about the Soviet Union, defense, big budgets and nuclear weapons. As long as things appear to be working out at the negotiating table, Congress simply won't vote to buy expensive new weapons. A degree of public fear and tension is required. Thus funding for Reagan's strategic arms program since 1981 has depended on failure in Geneva. But now the stage is set for negotiations at a new level of seriousness: Reagan has proved he can get what he wants--"Star Wars," the MX missile, the B-1 bomber, an expanded Navy, neutron bombs and chemical weapons, expensive new intelligence hardware and deployment of new missiles in Europe. The Soviets hate it all and show every sign of genuine willingness to put their own strategic assets on the negotiating table. For the first time in at least a decade, both sides can trade things they have for things they want, if they can only decide what they want.

Here we enter a misty realm of speculation. It is hard to know what Presidents really think about national security, nuclear weapons and the Soviets. Harry S. Truman kept a diary, for example, noting day-dreams about laying down the law to Moscow and threatening to blow them off the map if they didn't stop giving him trouble. He breathed nary a word of this in public at the time. What Reagan's true feelings are we have no way of knowing for sure. His public statements have occasionally revealed breathtaking ignorance of basic facts. He once said that submarine-launched missiles could be recalled in midflight. This is so wrong it makes you wonder. Other remarks suggest he thinks a pact with the Soviets would be about as useful and reliable as a pact with the devil. But Reagan has also said he wants to negotiate an arms agreement with Moscow, he appears to understand why this would be a good idea, and nothing is gained by refusing to take him at his word.

American governments do not find it easy to settle on a negotiating position. Endless bureaucratic wrangling is involved. The White House, State Department and Defense Department always have different views that change from one year to the next. The chief difficulty is that everything is connected to everything else. A ban on nuclear weapons in Europe--sometimes called "theater weapons"--would leave a balance of conventional forces favorable to the Soviets. A 50% reduction in strategic weapons would tend to create a nuclear stalemate with the same effect. A comprehensive attempt to negotiate simultaneous reductions in conventional forces along with theater and strategic weapons would be monstrously complex--and fail to address the fundamental political animosities at the root of the Cold War. These, in turn, are fueled by the rising level of military tensions created by threatening new weapons.

When the government asks itself what should be done, as generally happens at the beginning of every new Administration, it gets whole tomes in reply. No one--certainly no President--can grasp the problem whole. The result is a constant tug of war between the partisans of some narrow agreement that looks feasible at the moment, and a host of doubters who argue it won't solve the problem, and may leave us worse off.

The problem is an old one. It was well described by Gen. A.C. Temperley, a British delegate to arms-control talks held in Geneva during the 1930s. "I am convinced that extreme simplicity is essential," he wrote in his memoirs. "The trouble is that the moment an apparently simple scheme is produced, the logical Latin mind gets to work. Committees are appointed, every difficulty and possible evasion is scrutinized. In the end it is invariably swamped by a mass of verbiage, definitions, exceptions, technicalities and theoretical objections, under which the original proposal has completely disappeared."

A straight trade of "Star Wars" for Soviet agreement to reductions in strategic missiles appears to be just such a simple scheme. So is a trade of SS-20s for U.S. Pershing and cruise missiles. So is a comprehensive test ban. Reagan and Gorbachev will not think up the objections to these simple schemes; they trust their advisers to spot the loopholes, and we may be sure every last one of them will be on the table in Geneva. But next to talk for talk's sake, an agreement for agreement's sake begins to look good.

Gorbachev has gone to considerable trouble to sound like he really wants an end to "Star Wars"--as long as he doesn't have to give away the farm to get it. Reagan, in the friendliest possible way, has admitted he does have an interest in the farm, and might just be willing to offer a tiny piece of "Star Wars" in trade. Failing an agreement, both want to look like men who have done everything they safely could. If this strikes the rest of us as cold potatoes, we ought to recall a remark by the late J. Robert Oppenheimer, who built the first atomic bomb, and then helped write the first proposal for controlling it. The plan went nowhere, like so many since. In a speech of lugubrious farewell at Los Alamos in November, 1945, Oppenheimer said, "I want to express the utmost sympathy with the people who have to grapple with this problem and in the strongest terms to urge you not to underestimate its difficulty."

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