Eighteen years ago this month I sat with Robert Kennedy in a Los Angeles restaurant. Numb with the exhaustion of campaigning, we sought respite--a kind of busman's mental holiday--by musing on the state of the world that Kennedy so wished to change.
"You know what I think," he said. "If we don't turn this arms thing around we'll probably have a nuclear war in 20 years." The remark required no answer. It was intended not as prophecy but a calculation of probabilities--the false precision merely a rhetorical device.
But now Ronald Reagan may succeed in making Robert Kennedy something he never wanted to be--a prophet. His threat to violate the second strategic arms limitation treaty, virtually a promise that he reiterated Wednesday at his press conference, is one of the few really revolutionary deeds of the so-called "Reagan Revolution."
His press conference statement that the decision is months away merely repeats facts already known--that he will not violate the treaty until our new air-launched cruise missiles are ready to go. He can hardly do anything sooner.
We have taken only a few pitifully small steps toward mastering the instruments of universal death first displayed at Hiroshima almost half a century ago. But we have never turned backward. No President has undone the efforts to reduce danger made by those who preceded him in office. Not until now.
Should Reagan succeed, he will destroy not simply an agreement but hope. For if one President can so readily discard what others have so laboriously achieved, then negotiations, pledges, pacts have no more effect on the currents of history than the fall of snowflakes on the ocean tides.
The significance of SALT II is not its content. It simply limits the number of nuclear weapons that can be launched across the Atlantic. It does not eliminate the ability of either superpower to destroy civilization. It does not prevent the development of more sophisticated weapons, or still the ravenous appetite for greater military power. Like the nuclear-test-ban treaty and the prohibition against anti-missile defenses, SALT II is a sign of direction. It indicates, feebly but unmistakably, where we as a nation have wanted to go.
If the arrow is changed, direction reversed, we will have abandoned--out of frustration or fear--that search toward a lasting peace, so ambiguously masked by the phrase "arms control." And we will be headed toward another, more ominously ambiguous, destination.
Do not be misled by the official justification that the Soviet Union is already guilty of violations. The evidence is obscure and ambiguous, the accusation unproven.
I detest the Soviet system. I do not trust Soviet intentions. I am also embarrassed to make such a disclaimer. It is a timid recognition of how successfully this Administration has tried to make opposition to our own government on questions of national defense appear as sympathy or naivete toward our adversaries. The truth, the democratic truth, is that oppositionto the wrongs of power is the course of true patriotism--not only a right but an obligation.
And that obligation has rarely been more urgent. For this man, this amiable, unpretentious man, this President, has now revealed himself. Ronald Reagan does not want to control and limit arms. He has no interest in creating the conditions that generations of American leaders have felt essential to lasting peace. He has no concern with the verdict of mundane history, or the Divine injunction that "blessed are the peacemakers." He is, above all, the commander in chief. His natural response to foreign difficulties is not patience and wisdom but force or the threat of force. He is content to leave behind him a world even more abundantly endowed with the power to destroy not only present society but also the memory of that civilization that defines us and gives meaning to our own, transient, existence.
Public men must be judged by their public acts. By that standard, the only possible standard, President Ronald Reagan is a very dangerous man.
How fortunate we are that the Founding Fathers so carefully divided the repositories of public power. We shall now see if--on this most important of all questions--those elected to represent us in Congress can cast aside their present cloak of timidity, their fear of opinion polls and the prospect of lost election, to take up arms against this action, so dangerous in itself, and which if unopposed will only encourage further overthrows of the questfor peace.
Abraham Lincoln lost his seat in Congress for opposing, in violent terms, President Polk's war with Mexico. We have no Lincoln among us. But we have inherited the principles and traditions that moved him. The only question is: Do we have the courage?