WASHINGTON — Mikhail S. Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, has mounted a two-pronged campaign to stimulate the economy and to establish new priorities for Soviet national security. Most commentary from U.S. observers has focused on his program to restructure domestic, economic and social aspects of Soviet life, but far more important from the standpoint of U.S. interests is Gorbachev's determination to end the threat of nuclear war--as reflected by his latest compromise offer to eliminate intermediate-range missiles in Europe. The Reagan Administration, while responding to this latest offer, is nonetheless still pursuing a national security policy based on fundamental misreadings of Soviet intentions.
The conventional wisdom in the Reagan Administration holds that Gorbachev's foreign-policy moves and arms-control proposals are motivated only by a temporary desire to cut defense spending so that the domestic economy can be galvanized. There has been no real change in long-term Soviet ambitions, according to White House advisers.
It is true that the Soviet economy cannot be turned around as long as the arms race continues at the current exorbitant pace. In fact, Gorbachev, speaking to an international forum in Moscow on Feb. 16, said: "I state with full responsibility that our international policy is more than ever determined by domestic policy, by our interests in concentrating on constructive endeavors to improve our country." But the main thrust of his speech dealt with a new approach to nuclear weapons.
Soviet leaders, starting with Vladimir I. Lenin, have accepted the opinion of the Prussian strategist, Karl von Clausewitz, that war is a continuation of politics by other means. The strategic manual written by Marshal Vassily D. Sokolovsky in the 1960s asserted that nuclear wars could be fought and won. As recently as 1979, Marshal Nikolai V. Ogarkov claimed that there was still a possibility of victory if the Soviet Union were attacked with nuclear weapons.
Now Gorbachev has rejected Clausewitz, saying, "War--at any rate world war--has ceased to be a continuation of politics by other means. Nuclear war would incinerate the architects of such a policy. We made ourselves face the fact that the stockpiling and the sophistication of nuclear armaments means that the human race has lost its immortality. It can be regained only by destroying nuclear weapons. We have rejected any right for leaders of a country, be it the U.S.S.R., the U.S. or other, to pass a death sentence on mankind."
Albert Einstein said that the splitting of the atom had changed everything except man's way of thinking. Now Gorbachev and his associates have changed theirs; they call it the "new thinking." Gorbachev notes that only one of today's strategic submarines could kill several times the number of people killed during World War II.
The Soviets do not anticipate that either superpower will attack the other with nuclear weapons. But they fear the growing danger of nuclear war arising from miscalculation at times of crisis. Gorbachev says: "We have to admit that nuclear safeguards are not 100% effective and are not termless . . . the bigger the nuclear arsenals, the less chance that they will be kept obedient . . . the constant risk of technical error, human failure or malice are all chance factors on which the survival of mankind depends."
As technology advances, the risk of malfunction and accidental launch increases. Nuclear weapons can now reach vital targets in six to 10 minutes. It is apparent that no human decision-making system can be devised to function in such a short time span. At times of crisis and nuclear alert the decision whether to respond to a warning of attack will have to be made by computers. Soviet computer technology is far behind that of the United States, but even U.S. computers continue to make errors. The Soviets were dismayed by the human errors manifested in the Chernobyl disaster; they know that mechanical errors are equally possible.
This is a major reason for the profound Soviet fear of President Reagan's "Star Wars" plans. Gorbachev says that if the arms race spreads into space, arms control will come to an end. "Destabilization would become reality and fraught with crisis. The risk of accidental outbreak of war would increase by several orders." Gorbachev says that if we are to survive we must demilitarize our competition and drastically reduce nuclear arsenals. He says that we must get back to serious negotiation because "the nuclear arms race is pushing us towards universal tragedy."
Contrast these views with those of President Reagan set forth in a 1987 document, "National Security of the United States":