PRESIDENT CARTER'S decision last week to "defer" production of the neutron bomb for now seems at first glance to be a laudable move, but beneath that decision lies the shallow echo of Carter's campaign promise to stop nuclear proliferation. Carter alienated friends and foes alike with his shifting stand on the "clean" nuclear weapon; and while his decision to hold off production of the neutron bomb in the face of such pressure is commendable, the reasoning behind the decision is suspect and the final outcome still remains in doubt.
In typical fashion, Carter's choice depended on two outside factors rather than his own opinion. Carter did not want the United States to be embarassed by producing a neutron bomb which European NATO members will not publicly sanction for deployment. While those nations--particularly Britain, West Germany and Belgium--beat around the issue, the administration tried to save face rather than take a stand on the new way to kill without damaging property.
Carter's stand remains a temporary one, leaving open future development of the neutron bomb at a more convenient time. He said last week that his final decision would depend on the Soviet Union's degree of restraint in the arms race over an unspecified period of time. Thus any new Soviet escalation in nuclear armament could provide a back-handed justification for the resumed production of the neutron bomb. And here lies the real issue: the ultimate decision should not depend on outside influences, but should stem rather from Carter's professed concerns about nuclear proliferation.
WHEN THE PLANS for the neutron bomb were uncovered as a tiny item in the 1978 budget for the Energy Research and Development Administration last summer, many Americans were outraged by the possibilities inherent in a tactical nuclear weapon. Although this outcry seems to have dissipated over the winter, anesthetized by the swirl of military and diplomatic gibberish surrounding the arms race, the neutron bomb nonetheless demands sober consideration. The weapon would be used to stop Soviet tank attacks in Central Europe, but the likelihood of such an attack appears increasingly dubious.
More ominously, the production of the neutron bomb furnishes the Pentagon with the option of a tactical skirmish that could easily escalate into a full-scale strategic war. Besides increasing the nuclear threat confronting our society, deployment of the weapon will only worsen relations with the Soviet Union and make a farce of all disarmament talks. With all these adverse effects to consider, it is imperative that Carter maintain his heretofore tentative stand against U.S. production of the neutron bomb.