NUCLEAR FREEZE. It's something that you can get excited about. It's a cause celebre, a handy catch phrase that covers a wide range of anti-war sentiments, from pacifism to middle-of-the-road pragmatism. Yet, the wholehearted embrace of the nuclear freeze issue-with the idealistic "unilateral" or the cautioning "bilateral"-has resulted in the rover simplification of an issue that defies vague sloganeering.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) will run a possibly successful campaign for senator this year, focusing on the nuclear freeze issue. And seven of the eight presidential contenders-former Florida Gov. Reubin O. Askew being the exception-have endorsed some sort of freeze. Unsuccessful 1972 Democratic nominee George S. McGovern has gone so far as to call for a unilateral halt to nuclear arms production and deployment.
Yet as enthusiasm grows, the less likely it becomes that any of the would be Democratic party holders will seriously examine the merits of the freeze idea. The nuclear issue had received only cursory consideration from within the Democratic camp precisely because a consensus has been reached so quickly. But, for the Democrats to present a realistic alternative to the Reagan militarism, they must develop a realistic proposal to bring the arms race under control and lessen the likelihood of Armageddon.
Such proposals have been floating through intellectual circles and appearing in the political journals for some time, and one, the No First Use plan, is worthy of serious consideration by party policy makers.
NO FIRST USE, a concept that finds its roots in the Baruch Plan of 1946, has received renewed consideration in the wake of a 1982 article in Foreign Affairs by four former top-ranking military planners, McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor to President John F. Kennedy '40; George F. Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union; Robert S. McNamera, secretary of defense under Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson; and Gerard Smith, chief Salt I negotiator.
In a nutshell their argument is as follows:
*Stop the escalation of warfare at the border between conventional warfare and nuclear warfare of any kind. There is no such thing as "limited" nuclear war, meaning that any use of nukes would probably lead to an all-out exchange. Respond to Soviet aggression in kind and do not attempt to save a conventional defeat with nuclear weapons.
*Maintain our nuclear forces at such a level and deploy them in such a way that the Soviet Union could not safely undertake a first strike of its own. Do not drop the nuclear guarantee-made at the formation of NATO after World War II-that the U.S. would respond to a Soviet first strike on Western Europe with a nuclear second strike.
*Cancel deployment or scrap weapons intended primarily for a counterforce-targeted against military installation and silos. If we do not intend to conduct a first strike, counterforce targeting would, logically, become unnecessary, since a second strike on Soviet silos would probably fall on empty holes.
*Step up the U.S. conventional military presence in Western Europe and West Germany, in particular, to compensate for the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons.
THE PROPOSAL ELICITED a flurry of response from military planners and civilian observers, including a quick "no way" from the Secretary of Defense Alexander M. Haig. Though McNamera, in particular, has been trying to keep the issue alive, it has faltered from lack of attention from the Administration and, surprisingly, from the opposition Democrats.
The reason is, of course, that even talk of loosening the U.S.'s nuclear ties to Western Europe could have disastrous consequences for the Alliance. Yet, by the same token, it should be argued that a continuation of our less and less credible nuclear umbrella would, in the long run, have similarly divisive effects.
Though debate now focuses on the relative numbers of the NATO and Warsaw Pact nuclear arsenals, the fragile promise that binds the Alliance should and inevitably will have to be considered. And now is a good time for the Democrats to bring such discussion into the political mainstream. Moreover, with the President unable to bring the Soviet back to the INF and Strategic Arms negotiating tables. No First Use proponents can present a particularly timely arguments.
Not only would a U.S. declaration of a No First Use policy, combined with a real change in our nuclear deployment, be a public relation coup, but it would also break the deadlock in the arms talks since, with a conventional defense, the numbers of warheads becomes less important. In this sense, No Firs Use is a much more profound move towards peace than a nuclear freeze which leaves policy matters largely untouched. No First Use allows the United States to move beyond a freeze, removing both the need for counterforce first strike missiles and the justifications for attempting to match the Soviets bang for bang.
For the more hawkish American and Europeans, No First Use offers the promise of increased conventional military strength, though critics of the proposal correctly point out that a conventional build-up will be extremely costly and unpopular. However, any increased reliance on conventional rather than nuclear weapons lessens the danger of Armageddon, and that should be worth the financial burden.
No First Use is, admittedly, a major shift from a policy that has remained in place throughout the nuclear age. But it is imperative, at this low point in U.S.-Soviet relations, for the Democrats to move debate beyond the largely cosmetic issue of numbers toward the real weak point of both the Reagan administration and NATO-policy.