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Get It in Writing

December 02, 1985

President Reagan keeps telling the Soviet Union that his "Star Wars" program is as benign as the legendary good fence that makes good neighbors. The Soviets want it in writing, and so should he.

Reagan would lose nothing by agreeing to written ground rules for further research and development of what he insists can be a shield that would make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. What he could gain is something of value to both countries--serious negotiations toward major reductions in offensive weapons on both sides.

The President and his aides keep insisting that his refusal to give any ground on either research or testing during his Geneva summit meeting with General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev was a triumph. Unidentified White House officials say, in fact, that Gorbachev is not as worried about Star Wars as he says he is. That was scarcely the message that Gorbachev delivered in Moscow last week in a somewhat defensive speech that could indicate that some of the people with whom he must share power doubt that the summit was as successful as the principals say it was.

The President's Geneva position could be more tragedy than triumph if refusing to discuss defenses in detail blocks arms-control talks. The chances are that it will. The Soviets are no more likely to think about dismantling missiles that they thought they might need to punch holes in a defensive system than would the United States if the situation were reversed and Gorbachev were pushing a crash program to develop such a shield.

The President would give up nothing by agreeing to amend the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty in ways that would keep both sides fully informed about research on defenses and on development schedules for testing them. Failing to do so would certainly mean giving up a serious shot at basic reductions in Soviet weapons, particularly the heavies with the multiple warheads.

The President also could use some outside help from experts who could put Star Wars research on a more measured schedule and eliminate some of the public-relations stunts that the Star Wars specialists have staged.

One example is the gee-whiz approach that the Air Force took when scientists working on one part of Star Wars bounced a laser beam off a mirror in a space shuttle passing 150 miles high over Hawaii. The Air Force still has not explained how that was a breakthrough, in view of the fact that Americans bounced a laser beam off a mirror that Apollo astronauts put on the moon in the late 1960s. The moon is an average 239,000 miles away.

Continued refusal to write out some rules for Star Wars could be doubly tragic. There are enough physicists in the country with basic doubts about whether the idea of space-based defenses can ever be translated into reality--at least in this generation. To pass up a real chance for basic arms reductions in order to hang on to a will-o'-the-wisp can scarcely be called a triumph.

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