FIVE HARVARD professors are offering the public a handbook on national security entitled Living With Nuclear Weapons, with a foreword by Derek Bok, the university's president. Despite Bok's disclaimer that the book has no "official status," no other Harvard University Press book published during his tenure has had a presidential introduction. Plainly, the aura of Harvard has been invoked to lend authority to the volume, the newest chapter in Harvard's attempt to grapple with the bomb.

When the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Harvard had already been heard from on the subject of nuclear weapons. Harvard professors had held important positions in the Manhattan Project. The president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, had sat on the committee to consider whether the bomb should first be demonstrated on an uninhabited island or, as Conant himself advised, dropped immediately on an industrial city in order to produce enough casualties to persuade the Japanese to surrender. Harvard economics professor Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict was a seminal work in the new science of nuclear bargaining. Three former professors at America's most distinguished university, McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, provided advice on nuclear weapons for over 13 years as national security advisers to five presidents.

In his foreword to Living with Nuclear Weapons, Bok writes, "The origins of this book date back to a spring morning in 1982 when I discovered that James Reston had devoted his Sunday column to the growing nuclear arms debate." Bok shared Reston's worry over whether the public would "get enough facts" to enable them to act intelligently "on this immensely complicated military and moral issue." Bok conceived of the idea of a Harvard study that would "try to supply the public as a whole with an objective account of the basic facts about nuclear arms control that sorted out the various issues and proposals and presented the arguments for and against each position." He asked five well-known Harvard professors--Albert Carnesale, Paul Doty, Stanley Hoffmann, Samuel Huntington, and Joseph Nye--to serve as the Harvard Nuclear Study Group. (Two of them had served in high positions in the Carter administration, dealing with one phase or another of the nuclear issue.) A graduate student, Scott D. Sagan, was added to write up the study, and was provided with a small staff to help him with "the critical task of fleshing out first drafts." The professors then met regularly to "discuss" them and "subsequently shared the responsibility" for rewrites. The book has been published not only by Harvard University Press but also by Bantam as a paperback, with a combined initial printing of 55,000 copies.

When the obligation to inform the public struck Bok in April 1982, the broadest-based peace movement of the postwar era was already on the move. Town meetings across the country had passed resolutions calling for a nuclear freeze. More than 750,000 men, women and children were preparing to travel to New York City to demonstrate for an end to the arms race. Jonathan Schell's searing meditation on annihilation, The Fate of the Earth, was a best seller, and peace activists were appearing on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Against this background, in the 38th year of the nuclear arms race, the president of Harvard summoned the university to its duty to "educate the public."

Living with Nuclear Weapons is designed for the large number of Americans who have recently become concerned about national security, many of whom are demanding a freeze on nuclear weapons. Harvard offers them little encouragement. Nuclear weapons are here to stay and new ones are coming, the professors tell us; the challenge is to learn to live with them. They do not propose that we Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, as Stanley Kubrick's famous subtitle for Dr. Strangelove suggests. That, we are told, is black humor, a form of denial. We are asked instead to worry intelligently and to prepare to spend the rest of our days in the shadow of the bomb. The entire discussion has a certain "there- there" quality. We must not be hysterical. Prophecies of nuclear disaster have yet to materialize. We must learn to live with uncertainty and risk "in the world we know." We must avoid the pitfalls of the "either/or mentality" characteristic of both utopians of the left, who preach "absolute peace" and "premature disarmament," and utopians of the right, who believe that "sheer military muscle is all that America needs."

The Harvard professors are generous with facts and stingy with new ideas. Their recommendations for buying weapons are clear enough but their arms control proposals are minimal, conventional and bathed in clich,e ("Atomic escapism must be avoided"). They do not like the idea of a nuclear freeze or George Kennan's proposal for a 50 percent cut in nuclear stockpiles. And they are "not yet persuaded" that the United States should pledge itself not to use nuclear weapons first, as Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy have advocated. Some useful insights and information are scattered throughout the volume.

But page after page of Living with Nuclear Weapons reads like the negotiated prose of an interdepartmental task force. The language of government compromise obscures a host of difficult choices which need to be elucidated. The authors are "all in all" against seeking to restore nuclear "superiority" and disparage the idea of "winning" a nuclear war; but they assert a role for nuclear weapons in "extended deterrence," "crisis stability," and "war termination" without informing the citizen that these bits of war planners' jargon have enormous implications. Theoretically, at least, there can never be enough weapons to carry out these functions. The argument made more and more by retired military officers that nuclear weapons are unusable for any of them is not even noted, much less addressed.

The reader is left with the impression that the alternative to nuclear war is either total disarmament under the aegis of world government or an endless arms race. The professors opt for the latter because the former is utopian. There are, of course, a number of other approaches to national security, but these are given short shrift. The long history of efforts to look beyond the balance of terror to staged disarmament, which used to be an official U.S. objective, or to legal institutions for defusing the dangers of war is barely mentioned. Furthermore, the Harvard realists do not give us the kinds of information that will allow us to weigh the relative risks of what they disparage and what they propose.

After reading this book, one would conclude that the public has been unreasonably optimistic about disarmament, and needs a dash of cold water. But public opinion polling data suggest that hopelessness, not euphoria, about advoiding war characterizes the public mood. Living With Nuclear Weapons will do much to reinforce this despair. The authors say arms control can be successful when the political conditons are "right," but they do not tell us how these conditions can be created. They have virtually nothing to say about the impact on the nuclear predicament of the world economic crisis, the unraveling of NATO, the economic and political turmoil of Eastern Europe, the global decline of American power, the failure of communist ideology, and the growing isolation of both superpowers. They say nothing at all about the forces that propel the arms race within both America and the Soviet Union. The economic costs of the arms race are treated superficially, and no mention is made of the non-economic costs. The authors note the dangers of proliferation and predict a 25 percent increase in nuclear weapons stockpiles, but their picture of the world of the 1980s and 1990s looks very much like the world at the time of John F. Kennedy, when much of the conventional wisdom of nuclear strategy was perfected.

Clearly, the Harvard Study Group has not heeded Albert Einstein's warning, delivered shortly after the bomb went off over Hiroshima, that we would have to change "our modes of thinking" about security if we were to avoid catastrophe. Its effort to educate the public about the nuclear threat turns out to be little more than a cool endorsement of official orthodoxy.

The book culminates in a series of recommendations on how to run the arms race, which, with minor modifications, are the same as those of the Reagan administration. The authors look with favor on the preference of "most strategists" for a nuclear striking force that can provide "limited nuclear options." They note that the decision to deploy Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe "has created many problems," but they recommend going ahead anyway because of the "high political costs" (unspecified) of doing otherwise. Though at least one profesor would "terminate" the MX program, the group favors retention of land-based ICBMs despite their acknowledged vulnerability. In their only clear departure from the Reagan administration, the Harvard professors would scrap the B-1 bomber in favor of modernizing the aging B-52 with cruise missiles until Stealth, the bomber of the next generation, is ready. Like President Reagan, they favor maintaining the ABM Treaty while conducting a "vigorous ABM research and development program (consistent with the treaty)."

Our universities are supposed to be the repositories of our civilization, but the Harvard Study Group takes this obligation lightly. Living for almost 40 years in the shadow of the bomb has profoundly altered our political system. One man with neither a legal obligation nor any practical possibility of consulting the people who elected him, or their representatives in Congress, can by pushing a button bring on an attack leading to the death of 140 million Americans. What this condition has done and is doing to American democracy would have been worth discussing in a project to educate the public about the nuclear predicament.

Our premier university is so caught up in the weapons culture that five of its professors find themselves unable to break out of "responsible" orthodoxy and lack the critical distance from power to see the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of what passes for realism. The most moving sentence in Derek Bok's introduction is a reminder that "it was an informed public opinion that pressed for an end to slavery; it was an informed public opinion that sought an end to child labor." These decent Harvard men know that nuclear weapons are evil; they say so. But unlike such great moral and political educators of the past as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, or Jacob Riis, the authors hold out no vision of a world free of the evil they see; they cannot even say how to begin to look for a possible path to such a world.