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CLEARLY THE GREAT DEBATE is upon us. No longer the exclusive prey of physicists, the issue of the world's ever-increasing nuclear arsenal has captured the hearts--and minds--of America. The give-and-take started in Vermont, where 161 towns so far this year have endorsed a nuclear freeze. It continued when the New Yorker published in three successive issues Jonathan Schell's apocalyptic The Fate of the Earth. It escalated when The New Republic responded to Schell by featuring a piece "in defense of deterrence." It spread further with a Newsweek cover story. And it evolved all out of control with an ABC Nightline special edition live from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government two nights ago that showed off satellite technology and an array of impressive guests.
The nuclear debate is not a new one. Ever since Hiroshima Nagasaki, periodic outbursts of protest against the folly of the bomb have erupted, occasionally prompting assuaging measures like SALT. But the current crisis has reached new levels of intensity and urgency. An American President talks of "limited" nuclear conflict. A renewed cold war atmosphere freezes the United States and the Soviet Union into intransigent positions. Russia launches escapades in Afghanistan and Poland. The bottom line of all this--more nuclear weapons that are increasingly complex and hence more prone to accidental detonation. This is the stuff of dissent, of passion, of fear. And these are the supporting actors, the backdrop and the props for the ultimate scenario of the absurd.
The litany against nuclear weapons need hardly be repeated. The debate is not really "to have or have not" but rather how not to have. Listen to the people on the Nightline program. They are Russians, Americans, Germans, students, politicians and scientists. None of them want a nuclear war; they are all looking for a way out.
Why not freeze production at current levels? someone asks. We can't do that, an Administration official says it would give the Russians an advantage. Why? Because the USSR currently has--or so we are told--a more effective collection of nukes than the United States. How about unilateral disarmament' Crazy, comes the re-sports, that would be like surrendering to Communism. What if we ratify the SALT II agreements? Can't do that--they aren't really verifiable and besides why should we trust the Russians' Well then, couldn't we come up with a better more verifiable SALT' Maybe, goes the answer, but you have to have good faith and the U.S.S.R. has often been lacking in that category.
AND SO IT GROWS, an ever more vicious circle. Proposal succeeds proposal automatically followed by rejection. Men of good will caught in a catch-22. The common denominator is mistrust, misunderstanding. In Washington, the certainty prevails that the Soviets want world-wide communism and will stop at nothing to achieve it. In Moscow, the belief is widespread that the U.S. is aggressive and anti-communist to the point of war. As Soviet journalist Gennadi Gerassimov said on Nightline: "From our side it way always just a reaction to your side. You were first to have the bomb, first to explode it, first with the cruise missile ... We have been trying to play catch-up."
The antidote to the disease consists of relieving the suspicion--indeed the paranoia--that exists between East and West. It is far from an easy task. The very existence of lethal and growing nuclear arsenals breeds this mutual fear. But there is hope: Short of disarmament, constructive steps can be taken to reduce the tension and give the Americans and Soviets a better understanding of one another.
In a sense, the Nightline program was a start. The presence of Gerassimov--albeit via satellite--must have shocked a few viewers. Here was a red-blooded Russian, a communist, and yet he sounded and talked just like you and me, he exressed the same apprehension, the same terror. True, he spewed forth some of the usual rhetoric--much like Secretary of State Haig. But there seemed to be a sincerity, a desire for improvement behind Gerassimov's words. And, no doubt, the mass of Soviets finds the prospect of a nuclear holocaust just as abhorent as most Americans do.
A weekly "meet the Russians," though, would not go very far. What we need is natural, day-to-day contact between East and West. Economic, cultural and technological exchange constitutes a feasible panacea to the present malaise. By creating more and stronger binding ties, constructive co-existence heightens mutual dependence and makes aggression by either side less likely.
Trade between the Soviet Union and the United States exists of course, but at nowhere near the level reached during the heyday of detente in the early 1970s. Soviet scholars and cultural groups are subject to extensive restrictions when they come to America. And the U.S. won't sell the Russians the advanced technology they need to pump oil from Siberia. Somehow, there must be room for improvement.
Should detente once again pick up, progress will likely be made on nuclear arms reduction. When you have a valuable trading partner, the last thing you want to do is destroy him. It comes down to a case of mutual self-interest. We need them and they need us.
The United States will rightfully go on deploring human rights excesses in the Soviet Union. And it is hardly likely Americans will one day espouse the communist ideology. But nowhere does it say we cannot live in peace with the U.S.S.R. In the nuclear age, there is truly no alternative.
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