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Beyond the Hotline : by William L. Ury (Houghton Mifflin: $14.95; 187 pp.)

April 21, 1985|ART SEIDENBAUM | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

The Soviets would sit with Americans in Washington while the Americans would meet with Soviets in Moscow, two ongoing exercises in what author William L. Ury calls joint crisis control.

The aspiration: to prevent superpower war started by accident, terrorism, mistake, runaway escalation, misperception.

The assumption: Each side acknowledges the suicidal nature of nuclear war, but the opportunity for error--for pushing "buttons" in response to panic or provocation--is an everyday reality in a world where alarms sound continuously, where each nuclear power has commitments and allies to honor.

Ury likens his notion to fire prevention. Cities used to burn down with historic regularity until humankind devised detection equipment, monitoring devices and teams of professional protectors. In the last half-century, he writes, the United States and the Soviet Union have "come uncomfortably close to nuclear war" on five occasions although neither side intended an ultimate escalation: Soviet blockage of Berlin, first in 1948 and again in 1961. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The Middle East war of 1967, when Premier Aleksei Kosygin himself called President Lyndon Johnson himself to warn of Moscow military action if Americans were participating in Israeli air attacks against Egypt; the United States denied such participation, and the Soviets rechecked their intelligence to verify America's denial. And, most recently, during the Israel-Egypt war of 1973.

The "hotline" was born in 1963, a by-product of 15 years of generally frustrating disarmament discussions between East and West. Both sides recognized a need for direct communications between heads of state in time of crisis. "Contrary to popular belief," Ury explains, "the Hotline is not a red telephone sitting on the President's desk," but a Teletype in the Pentagon with an extension in the White House. Kosygin, in 1967, was the first caller. Then-Secretary of State Robert McNamara had to wake President Johnson whose first response was to wonder what to say.

Improvements in crisis control have been added during the intervening 22 years. In 1971, satellite links were made part of the "hotline." The same year, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to notify each other immediately in case of any accidental nuclear firing or event. The Incidents at Sea Agreement of 1972 and the Basic Principles Agreement of 1972 spell out naval rules and ground rules for both sides' behavior. Agreements in 1973 and 1975 expand mutual consultation and notification procedures. Last year, the capacity to transmit graphics and photographs was added to the "hotline."

Joint crisis control centers would carry and complement enlarged communications. Technical experts could solve problems, implement safety procedures, authenticate information and advise leaders, connecting Washington and Moscow in continuous teleconferencing. The centers would be working examples of a crisis management policy Ury identifies as "hands off holsters," to provide time and data before anybody fires in fury.

Approval of such consultation was included in Soviet policy as recently as 1984. Such consultation was affirmed by the U.S. Senate as recently as 1984, by a vote of 82 to 0, for a resolution sponsored by Democrat Sam Nunn (Ga.) and Republican John Warner (Va.). Hawks and doves generally flock to the idea, recognizing that ongoing information is the most reliable safety catch, in self-interest, for each superpower.

In the best of possible worlds--even in the better of possible worlds--a joint U.S.-Soviet teleconferencing center might eventually lead to mutual trust and mutual disarmament. But crisis control can work with or without progress in arms control, with or without a defusing detente.

Ury makes a sensible case and suggests that citizens can help its advocacy just as citizens helped establish support for the original "hotline." He writes a controlled prose, clear enough to be appreciated by a bright high school student. If his language rarely reaches the awesome trajectory of the threat, it does make the message absolutely unambiguous.

In 1982, the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency asked the Harvard Negotiation Project to apply its understanding of human misunderstanding to the issue of superpower restraint. Ury, director of the Harvard Nuclear Negotiation Project, interviewed U.S. experts, visited Soviet experts and helped compile a report for government in 1984. This book is the public expression of that report, a plea for reducing tension through reasonable talk: simply put and simply necessary.

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