SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — The ghastly moment is fast approaching when President Reagan must decide whether or not he really wants to sign a major arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union. The rough shape of the agreement is already clear--a straight trade of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, ours for theirs. Nothing further is required but Reagan's decision to abandon a political lifetime of hard-line insistence that you can't trust the Soviets, smile for the cameras and say OK.
Working out the details was the easy part. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze will probably dot the final i's and cross the final t's when they meet this week. Putting pen to paper on a formal treaty will be hard. It's the whole ethos of the Cold War at stake, not just a category of military hardware. The signing and ratification of a new agreement--the first in 15 years--would have an important influence on the climate of international relations. When it comes to us and the Soviets, Americans as a people tend to reach carrying capacity with one idea at a time--either the Soviets are trying to take over the world and we can't give an inch, or there's nothing to fight about, the Cold War is ancient history and diplomats can work out the small stuff. In our system, the first casualty of peace is the fear required to push big military budgets through Congress.
This point is far from lost on the hard-line Cold Warriors who helped Reagan win the White House in the first place. The war for Reagan's ear as a decision approaches can thus be seen as a battle for the soul of the Cold War--confrontation of the sort we've had since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979, or a new era of detente under another name. Paul H. Nitze, a founder of the Committee on the Present Danger, which helped shoot down the last big arms agreement with the Soviet Union in 1979, once said he might favor a different agreement--but only after a decade or so, when the United States had caught up in the arms race. That was seven or eight years ago. The question now is whether Nitze, Reagan's elder statesman on arms control, and other hard-liners think the time is finally right to throw out a drag anchor after years of heavy defense spending.
Public argument about the treaty will focus, as always, on whether the treaty is a "good agreement." Of course everyone wants a "good agreement." The question is what makes an agreement "good." It is very difficult to answer this question honestly. Bias always shows through. Best to be frank. Just about everybody seems to agree that a "good agreement" is one that reduces the chance of, or the cost of preparing for, a nuclear war. But arms treaties can be drafted to serve many other purposes as well, which is where the going gets sticky.
There are basically two camps among those who get paid, or insist on volunteering, to think about nuclear weapons. We might call them the Worried and the Unworried. The Worried tend to think nuclear weapons are too dangerous to serve any useful purpose, that common sense can't be trusted to keep us out of war indefinitely, that technological "progress" is gradually hooking up the forces of both sides to hair triggers, that political leaders on both sides vastly overestimate their ability to control events and We Can't Go On As We Are. The Unworried point to 40 years of "peace," the continuing independence of Europe under a nuclear umbrella, the mellowing of the Soviet Union, the inability of a rational man to conceive of any goal that might justify going to war with nuclear weapons and the importance of maintaining a sufficiently threatening Western military posture to guarantee a peace based on Soviet good sense, not good will. I'm afraid I must confess that I myself am in the Worried camp with both feet; the assurances of the Unworried strike me as being the reediest sort of whistling in the deepest sort of dark. But I admit the question can't be settled in advance. We have to wait and see.
It's no surprise that Reagan should be found among the Unworried. With the sole exception of Jimmy Carter, every President since Franklin D. Roosevelt has felt pretty much the same way. Harry S. Truman did not quite grasp what nuclear weapons could do until he had dropped two on the Japanese; thereafter he treated the new weapon with sober and cautious respect, and his successors have done the same but none of them--Carter excepted--seems to have worried that The Bomb was not only too dangerous to use, but too dangerous to have.