The 40th anniversary of war's end in Europe should have been celebrated by the superpowers in deliberate discussion of ways to limit the risks of still another war. Instead, leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union acted like a pair of doctors postponing surgery while they lecture their patients about what a butcher the other is.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, said in Moscow that "American imperialism is at the forward edge of the war menace to mankind." In Strasbourg, President Reagan said that he is pressing forward with his "Star Wars" program because the Soviets are preparing for a nuclear first strike with a new breed of missiles.
As they talked, arms-control talks at Geneva were not only in recess but in stalemate over Reagan's Star Wars program. The President is virtually alone in believing that his vision of a missile-proof umbrella over America is possible. European leaders humor him in public statements, but their scientists share the sense of most American physicists that it is a hopeless cause. He insists that Star Wars is not negotiable. The Soviets say, in effect, then neither is anything else--including cuts in their nuclear arsenal.
Reagan's dilemma is simple and devastating, but not hopeless. If, as the President said last week, the Soviets are preparing to hide first-strike mobile missiles in the vastness of their country, the best way to stop them is by negotiating controls on such weapons. Star Wars--if it ever proved possible-- would arrive too late. But he cannot negotiate controls as long as he holds out on Star Wars.
The President can break the Geneva stalemate by sending his negotiators back with a package deal: The United States will discuss Star Wars if the Soviets are serious about discussing reductions in their missile force. To show good faith on both sides, they could also start by completing negotiations on a comprehensive test ban.
A test ban would not be a freeze. Both nations could continue improving the accuracy and range of missiles--or the reliability of far simpler defense systems than Star Wars. But neither country could test-fire nuclear warheads, new or old.
The two countries came close to agreeing on such a treaty in 1979 but, in one of the great ironies of recent history, put it aside to concentrate on SALT II. Although the public record of those negotiations is sparse, it is known that the Soviets had agreed not only to place sensors around their test areas to verify compliance but also to use American-built sensors.
A test ban has both long- and short-term benefits. Deterrence, the concept that the near certainty of awful retaliation in kind keeps either nation from starting a war, would go on. It would buy time to negotiate cuts in old missiles and warheads. After perhaps a decade, neither side could be certain that warheads piled up in warehouses for that long would actually explode. That uncertainty would be at least as effective a deterrent to using nuclear weapons as defense systems. Finally, it would test Soviet willingness to stop playing to the world's worried majority. If it were rejected, nothing would be lost. If it were accepted, it could pave the way for real controls on nuclear weapons.