IN THE MIDST of a great and swelling public debate

regarding nuclear arms policy, our government, alarmed by the buildup of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons systems (especially its large land-based missiles) proposes to purchase and deploy a whole new generation of weapons for the United States. At the same time, many knowledgeable people, here and abroad, are convinced that the present U.S. nuclear force is many times larger than is needed to deter the aggressive use of Soviet weapons and that the continuing nuclear arms race must inevitably end in a war which will be civilization's undoing. Polls show that a majority of Americans would like our government to follow a less dangerous course, but it does not dare to in the face of what are perceived to be threatening actions and attitudes of the Soviets. Moreover, the public has been told that the Soviet Union is engaged in the most relentless buildup of weapons ever seen, whose only purpose is world domination. Many experts question this.

It's difficult for most analysts trained as weapons experts to understand or discuss the question of Soviet intention; the defense-technical sector of the country is prominently influential at this time, so there has been an overemphasis on the military aspect of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. confrontation and relatively little written or said about the political, social, and economic factors that affect Soviet- U.S. relations.

Because of this imbalance in expert information, George Kennan's Nuclear Delusion is a unique contribution to the public debate. The author not only knows about nuclear weapons, he knows Soviet society, its history, and its driving forces well and is perhaps the person in the United States best qualified to discuss the complex issues that must be faced if the nation is to make rational decisions about future weapons systems.

As a several-times U.S. representative to the Soviet Union, Kennan experienced the frustration of dealing with Soviet functionaries and in turn learned about their problems, illusions, and goals. Kennan's famous 1947 "Mr. X" article in Foreign Affairs, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," made many of the arguments that are still valid today against overdependence upon military means -- especially nuclear weapons -- to meet the challenges posed by the growth of Soviet power in the aftermath of World War II.

Nuclear Delusion is a selection from among Kennan's talks and articles from 1946 to the present, knit together by a powerful introduction, which is itself a compact and enlightening review of Soviet-American relations over the entire period and a discussion of the attitudes and mistakes made by both sides which led mutual relations to their present low point. Kennan depicts a very different Soviet Union from the one pictured by the Committee on the Present Danger which stimulated our present course. It is must reading for U.S. leaders. In fact, the Soviet leadership would do well to read Delusionto see how their actions, excessive secrecy, and attempts to export an ideology have fed a European- American paranoia that caused the West to search for security behind a nuclear fortress.

Kennan's book is very compelling, and the writing makes it a great pleasure to read as well. He has said everything I wish people everywhere could hear, and think about; he is persuasive because of his lucid thinking, beautiful phrasing, simple-seeming logic that is in fact the basis for intuitive as well as informed diagnoses of passing and future events; he offers us supportive evidence upon which to come to our own informed opinions.

For more than 30 years the security policy of the United States has been based on what George Kennan calls the nuclear delusion, the view that a nuclear weapon should be viewed as "just one more weapon, like any other weapon, only more destructive." "This is the way it is generally viewed -- by our military authorities and by many others." Even today most people cannot comprehend the awesome force of the nuclear weapon. A one-kiloton explosive (1,000 tons) is regarded as insignificant by most military strategists; yet it has an explosive power comparable to that dropped by a thousand aircraft during one of the heaviest air raids of World War II and is significantly less costly. This dramatic change in scale makes nuclear weapons qualitatively different. Contemplating their use in a war injects a confusion into military planning that has persisted from their first availability. More than that, no one knows how to use them to advantage. Anything more than a single warning shot would lead to military chaos and ensuing human disaster.

Kennan recognized immediately after World War II that containment, imaginatively employing America's greatest strengths -- political and social freedom and a strong economy -- could make Europe secure and help start the newly emerging nations on a self-determined course. A sustained economic and ideological competition was the best way of dealing with Stalin's ambitions and communism's ideological threat. When this would be successfully moving ahead, the time for negotiation -- "slow, gradual, and circumspect," would be at hand. "The thought never entered my head at that time," he writes in the introduction, "that any of these problems could be, or needed to be, solved by war. There was no danger of anything of that sort. The Russians were profoundly war-weary. They had the most urgent need to reconstruct their war-ravaged economy. No one who had known war as they had known it in those past four years would ever wish to repeat the experience. The danger was not that of a possible Russian military onslaught on Western Europe. That was not the problem.

"The most important step was the restoration of the economic life, the morale, and the political vigor and self-confidence of the European countries not under Soviet domination. I was happy helping General Marshall to design the program of European reconstruction that came to bear, deservedly and permanently, his name."

Then, "In the first six months of 1948, I discovered, to my consternation and amazement, that the Western Europeans had suddenly decided that economic construction, successful as it appeared to be, was not what they most needed; that their greatest danger was then of an emerging Russian military superiority in Central Europe. The Soviet leaders played into these attitudes, of course, by their failure to demobilize, as the Western Allies had done in the immediate post-hostilities period. In the light of these anxieties, it was decided that the main thrust of Western policy must now be the creation of a military alliance. The shock of the first Soviet explosion of a nuclear device, in 1949, stimulated the decision to develop the hydrogen bomb, and shifted the main burden of the conceptual defense of Europe from conventional to nuclear weapons."

The Korean war in 1950 and fear of Soviet power expansion by force of arms led to the rearmament of West Germany and its acceptance into NATO. "I was disheartened by these developments. I questioned their necessity. I could perceive in them only a dreadful narrowing of the possibilities for a peaceful removal of the essentially dangerous division of the European continent."

Kennan was right. The injection of atomic weapons at all levels of military force has caused chaos in military planning and especially a neglect of fundamental conventional forces. It has brought the world to the point where war between superpowers would be suicidal for both. Kennan would like to see nuclear weapons stockpiles abolished. Realistically, he would start with substantial reductions.

You have to believe that peaceful accord would have been possible between East and West Europe through the late '40s, '50s and '60s, as Kennan believed, in order to have advocated sustaining a low military profile despite what looked like threatening provocations by the Russians. He would have pursued steadily the diplomatic, negotiated course, if not entirely sure of success, at least committed to the necessity of sticking to it in strong opposition to going the military buildup route. (It might have been desirable to add to the conventional force.)

The nuclear weapons buildup has not given either side security. At the end of World War II, America was secure and strong. Now after eight successive presidents have given in to demands for new weapons systems, the nation is naked to devastation, and handcuffed largely by weapons it pioneered, and is on the verge of bankruptcy as well. It should be sobering to note that U.S. security has been diminished by each new round of weapons systems. No president, no Congress, has foreseen the ultimate security consequences of their actions. Cannot President Reagan ask himself and his staffs how U.S. security will be enhanced by stimulating the Soviet Union to build a new intercontinental bomber, a cruise missile, to develop effective antisubmarine techniques, and move to "a launch on warning" security system? We need to start eliminating nuclear weapons -- not build new ones -- and Kennan argues persuasively that it can be done safely.

"The effort to control and abate the nuclear weapons race is not, after all, a favor we are doing for the Russians any more than it is a favor to ourselves. It is a dictate of the security and survival of all Western civilization. Let us first meet that dictate. The next can come afterward."