THE Power OF A Piece OF Paper

Thomas Powers, author of the "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and The CIA," and "Thinking About the Next War," is working on a history of strategic weapons

It was not just a scrap of paper but something closer to a reprieve that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev signed in Washington last week, thereby tacking at least 10 minutes onto the expected life span of Western civilization. You'd think everybody might raise a glass of Christmas eggnog to that, but when the auditors tote up the balance sheet for the new INF Treaty, you can bet they will heavily discount--if they take trouble to notice at all--the sigh of relief from those who actually live inside the target circles.

"Target" is a word that should suggest shooting and violence. No one professionally involved in the business of national defense thinks of "intermediate-range nuclear forces"--missiles with a range between 300 and 3,100 miles--as actual weapons. All agree they're too dangerous to use. Arms treaties have other purposes--securing Reagan's place in history, for example, or freeing billions of rubles for Gorbachev's economic reforms.

But the real significance of the INF Treaty is hidden in plain sight. It will reduce the level of violence in the event of a big war in Europe--a continent so crowded that the experts sometimes talk of German towns as being only two kilotons apart.

Since we are talking about scrapping 2,600 missiles, this ought to qualify as a big deal. But skeptics of the right will say the treaty only exchanges one threat for another--Soviet nukes for Soviet tanks, that still outnumber North Atlantic Treaty Organization tanks three to one. Skeptics of the left will say the treaty doesn't matter because both sides retain nukes enough of other types to leave Europe looking like an empty K mart parking lot. Skeptics of the center will say the Euromissile controversy was all politics from the beginning. If you listen to the skeptics you can't help wondering why both sides fought so long over what amounts to a scrap of paper.

The hardest thing in any arms-control negotiation is to take an agreement seriously after it's signed. The agreements seem so paltry, the effort so long and wearing, the remaining arsenal so large. The first U.S.-Soviet agreement of real significance was signed in 1963, close to 25 years ago. It banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere but did nothing to limit tests underground--both sides have developed and tested scores of new warheads since the ban went into effect. "What difference did it make?" the skeptics ask.

In 1972, we signed the first SALT agreement, which set "limits" on strategic weapons--that is, it allowed us to build new weapons already on the drawing board.

The second SALT agreement, signed in 1979 but never ratified, "allowed" both sides to build one new strategic system--the American MX and a similar Soviet missile. You can't blame the skeptics for thinking this was like arguing over what color to paint the coffins.

But hold on a minute--don't forget what the chancellor of Germany, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, said about scraps of paper at the outset of World War I. He was aghast, incredulous, horrified that Britain planned to fight solely because she'd solemnly promised the Belgiums--on paper-- she'd fight if anyone violated Belgian neutrality. "Just for a scrap of paper," protested Bethman-Hollweg in disbelief, "Great Britain is going to make war." Historians can cite 90 reasons why Britain went to war in 1914, but the reason the British gave at the time--the one thing that made looking the other way unthinkable--was that scrap of paper recording a British promise.

This is far from the standard evaluation of the role played by international treaties, but the experience of arms control tends to confirm it. A mighty effort is required to repudiate a treaty. The skeptics all say arms agreements have failed to make us safe. They are right. But they are wrong to suggest that arms-control agreements have been irrelevant.

Before 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union detonated hundreds of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Many different reasons were given for these tests. The two sides have detonated none since, for one reason only: They promised not to.

The weapon-builders have a ready fund of bright ideas for new hardware, but arms-control agreements--not strategy or money--are the biggest factors in deciding whether to go ahead. This was not always the case. Soviet and U.S. arsenals are curious grab bags. They include weapons of wildly different types, built for reasons hard to credit--like the MX, promised to the Air Force because the Navy got the last big system. Or the Trident D-5, built because we'd found ways to make submarine-launched missiles more accurate. Or the multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle--the infamous MIRV--funded by the Department of Defense in 1963 to mollify missile-designers unhappy about the Test Ban Treaty. Or the B-52 bomber, developed in the early 1950s mainly because the Air Force was then run by World War II bomber pilots who loved to fly.

Why did the first version of the Minuteman missile have a 1 megaton warhead? Because officials wanted the weapon to sound big and scary, and 1 million tons, like $1 million, is an American's way of saying "a lot." Why did we deploy 1,000 Minuteman missiles, neither more nor less? Because 1,000 seemed a sensible compromise between several hundred originally planned by Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 2,000 requested by the Air Force. I am not making this up. There are many wild cards in the business of national defense.

Into this chaos, arms-control agreements have brought a degree of order and sanity. The size and number of missiles, the maximum number of warheads they can carry, the fact that no attempt is made to hide or camouflage missile silos, how many can be tested at once before alerting the other side in advance--are all determined in fact, not just theory, by agreement. Considerations of nuclear strategy, expense and public sentiment all come second. The unratified SALT II agreement is not even a legal scrap of paper and yet it imposes immense moral restraint on the military planners of both sides. Only the United States has dared to announce a violation of the terms of the treaty by exceeding the launcher limits when it refitted a single B-52 bomber for launching cruise missiles a year ago.

An ocean of ink has been spilled in the last decade over the wisdom of deploying intermediate-range missiles in Europe. The arguments are all moot. Henceforth, there shall be none--not because they're too expensive or scare the public or destabilize the nuclear balance or threaten greater dangers than the one they're designed to prevent--but because the two sides have solemnly agreed the number shall be zero.

Arms-control agreements take forever to negotiate because once signed, they stick. The Reagan Administration has been trying to get out of the 1972 agreement limiting anti-ballistic missile systems for five years, has talked openly of repudiating it and has twisted some of its provisions beyond recognition. If the Soviets had waffled and weaseled in this brazen fashion, the U.S. gasp of horror would have blown off hats around the world.

But the ABM Treaty is still there, and it is still the biggest single obstacle to "Star Wars"--not the trillions in expense or the doubts of experts. The United States promised to do no such thing, and we have not yet found it in us to say we are going to break our word.

But for all the strength of arms-control agreements, they cannot be said to have made us safe. This suggests a second reason why it's hard to take arms-control agreements seriously--the weapons are too terrifying. The nuclear age, which may be said to have commenced 50 years ago this month with the discovery of fission in Germany, has been one long episode of psychological denial--a plain refusal to admit the danger posed by nuclear weapons. The abiding tone of the professional literature is one of reassurance--why it's OK to have weapons too dangerous to use. With the exception of one or two scientists, no one professionally involved in the development and management of nuclear weapons--no one--has seen the light and junked a career in order to say plainly that this way destruction lies. They have all kept their moments of despair to themselves, to continue reassuring the public and each other that nukes keep the peace and make us safe. But if nukes keep us safe, then controlling them through agreement falls into the category of nice-to-have, not the category of life-or-death.

These difficulties make arms control a sometime thing--three agreements (four if you include the unratified SALT II) in 42 years. Odds are it will take another eight or 10 years for the next agreement, despite excited talk that a new understanding on strategic arms is just around the corner. Arms-control treaties create their own opposition. There's something about the spectacle of Soviet and U.S. leaders toasting each other with long-stemmed champagne glasses--maybe it's the extended pinky--that brings cries of "Not So Fast!" from people who have memorized the sins of the Russians. The first SALT treaty was ratified only after Senate opponents had made it clear the price would be much higher next time. around. By the time the Carter Administration signed the second SALT treaty in 1979, the opposition was fully mobilized. It wasn't details that alarmed the skeptics, it was agreement --the public's sigh of relief that the Cold War was under control, the Russians weren't coming and we didn't have to spend zillions on new weapons.

As it was, so it shall be. The ink is barely dry on the INF Treaty and we can already hear a new round of muttering. It will grow loud before the treaty is ratified. If arms control doesn't matter, why all this fuss over another scrap of paper?

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