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Summer Mystery

August 18, 1986

History records very few cases in which a leader confides to an adversary: "I'm a little strapped for cash right now. Let's cool things off and go beat some swords into plowshares." In real life that usually happens only after one leader has exhausted himself trying and failing to beat the forces of the other. But President Reagan tells us that it may be happening now, and that the confider is Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

As evidence, the President reminds Americans often that the Soviet Union is an economic basket case, implying that it is anxious for at least a truce in an arms race that American innovation and technology presumably can win hands down. Then, too, there was the two-day meeting just outside Moscow among arms-control experts from the United States and the Soviet Union.

Those are described as serious and businesslike talks with no particular progress toward settling differences. Californians have hundreds of serious and businesslike talks every day with Highway Patrolmen that end the way they begin--with a ticket. Still, the arms controllers will resume their talks in Washington next month.

And so it continues to be the case that the great mystery this summer will be found not in a book at the beach but in Washington, Moscow and Geneva --a mystery in which the characters seem quite lifelike, the subject is a matter of life and death and there is no discernible plot.

For weeks Washington speculated that a letter from Reagan to Gorbachev had offered to negotiate on "Star Wars," his someday-somehow design for a miraculous umbrella to ward off nuclear weapons. Some days ago the President said that he would do no such thing. When Star Wars is ready it will be deployed, he said. Last week he said that nobody had yet guessed what the letter really said.

Paul H. Nitze is the President's chief arms-control adviser and the head of the American delegation that is discussing Star Wars and other paraphernalia of nuclear strategy with the Soviets. Nitze says that he would like to talk to Moscow about trimming back Star Wars in keeping with reductions in big Soviet missiles--the very thing that Reagan says he will not do.

Gorbachev has not answered the letter, but the Soviet news agency Tass warns that if Reagan means what he says about Star Wars there will be no arms-control agreements to replace those that Reagan has declared dead or dying. The newspaper Pravda said that there is nothing in the letter worth talking about at a summit. The Soviet press reflects what Gorbachev wants it to reflect.

Nobody in the Administration any longer says that Star Wars could be 100% effective against Soviet missiles. The President may still believe it, but he does not always draw careful connecting lines between what he believes and what the facts are. Nobody ever claimed that it could work at all against missiles launched from submarines or low-flying planes. With all the billions of dollars spent so far on Star Wars, nobody yet claims to know what it would look like, how it might work or whether it would cost more or less than the Soviets would have to spend for enough new missiles to penetrate whatever amount of defense Star Wars might provide.

A pioneer in nuclear strategy reminded us the other day that every new idea in his business begins with an "insane" premise. Every theory and countertheory is based on an assumption by military leaders in both nations that the other will someday try to get away with a first nuclear attack. The insanity, he says, is based only in part on the fact that nobody really knows whether the weapons would work.

To be sure, Reagan has declared nuclear war to be unwinnable and unthinkable, as has Gorbachev. But most of the strategic planning that goes on behind them assumes a nuclear launch. Most of the billions of dollars invested in making U.S. nuclear weapons survivable assume a nuclear launch. Star Wars itself assumes the ultimate insane act.

The pioneer strategist is grotesquely correct about the insanity of the premise that preoccupies so many bright and seemingly lifelike people. So, in the absence of any other hint of a plot, perhaps there are worse ways to spend the final weeks of summer than hoping that it finally has happened that two leaders are ready to acknowledge the insanity of a nuclear-arms race and are getting ready to actually do something about it.

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