What is the proper place of emotion in our view of nuclear weapons?

Put it another way: Have our leaders lost touch with the human consequences of their actions, or does the security of the western world demand nothing less than cold rationality? Are U.S.-Soviet differences the product of cultural misperceptions--to be overcome through more and better communication--or are they the result of conflicting goals accurately read on both sides?

These are the psychological issues of the nuclear debate. They have a vague and funny ring when measured against the usual language of political and strategic argument. Our elected officials generally prefer to talk about harder stuff--the MX, the B1 and the SS-20, for example. But among the critics of the arms race, there is a growing effort to prod the debate onto this exotic ground and, by doing so, to make Americans reconsider not only what we think about nuclear weapons, but how we think about them.

One of the strongest prodders is psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Nuclear war provokes "psychic numbing" in all of us, says Lifton, whose authority to use the term begins with the fact that he invented it--to describe the behavior of the survivors of Hiroshima. The children who went through the public-school Civil Defense drills of the 1950s and '60s were deeply unsettled by them, according to Lifton, often to the point of having nightmares, then and later. As time went on, they adopted a "double life," remaining aware "at some level of conscious or preconscious feeling that in a split second, one could be annihilated along with everyone and everything that one has ever loved and touched, and yet going about business as usual as though no such possibility existed."

Government policymakers, Lifton argues, exhibit a particularly severe form of psychic numbing--an "inability or unwillingness to feel what happens at the other end of the weapons." They "think only of games, tactics and competition with the adversary, they see before them no corpses, no people grotesquely injured and maimed, no human beings exposed to lethal radiation." And they are abetted, he says, by a corps of "nuclear experts" who, with their cool scenarios and dehumanized jargon, "serve as something on the order of anesthetists to the political and military leaders who employ them."

"If you just consider the everyday phrase 'nuclear exchange,' " says Lifton, "it sounds like something pretty good--almost like gift-giving."

As a close associate of Henry Kissinger and as deputy director of the National Security Council staff from 1975 to '77, William G. Hyland qualifies for membership in the decision-making elite Lifton is describing. But Hyland fails to recognize himself in Lifton's portrait. Psychic numbing, he says, "may exist at a certain level of pencil-pushers. It does not exist, so far as I know, at the top levels of government. At the presidential level they don't think of nuclear war as a game." Of course, he adds, "if you allow the emotion of nuclear war to enter into the daily work of the Defense Department, you'd end up totally paralyzed."

Given the delicate state of U.S.-Soviet relations, Hyland continues, we have far more to fear from emotionalism at the grass roots than from lack of emotion in the corridors of power. "I'm kind of appalled at the popularization of these subjects," he says. "I don't like the idea of a lot of people screaming and yelling that these warmongers in Washington need to be brought under control. What happens in these Ground Zero-type operations is you get a lot of emotion stirred up, but there's no alternative program. Since it's an issue between us and the Russians, it doesn't lend itself to constant massaging." If the Russians see our government under great popular pressure to reverse the arms race, they may conclude that "they can get something without having to bargain for it."

When Hyland brings up Ground Zero, he is talking about a group founded by a former White House teammate, Roger Molander. (The group plans a series of meetings and seminars next week.) Both Molander and Hyland were deeply involved in the arms-control efforts that led to SALT II. But from that common experience, they emerged with dramatically different conclusions.

"One of the things that bothered me when I came to the White House," says Molander, "was running into people--not all, but some--who did not exhibit in their day-to-day dealings with human beings some basic human kindnesses. . . . If I were to identify the reasons in the end that Henry Kissinger lost control of national security decisions, I'd say one of the reasons was this well-known characteristic." Recalling Kissinger's "screaming at underlings" and "supreme egomania," Molander says, "You can excuse that if you want. I just don't. . . . A lot of people in high places are like that, but on this issue, an issue that concerns human suffering, that's going to affect the lives of 240 million people, you need a different approach to human relations."

"You've got to be careful to separate human characteristics from political attitudes," Hyland counters. "Who maintained the peace in Europe the longest? Bismarck. He was rather disagreeable in many ways. He had a big ego. And what happened when Bismarck died? We had a succession of lesser figures. It seems to me that we cannot prescribe the attributes of the people who are going to run the world for us anyway."

'Fear Has Broken Through' -

Lifton, who teaches psychiatry at Yale, sees Ground Zero, the Nuclear Freeze campaign, the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the other elements of the new antinuclear movement as evidence of a breakdown of psychic numbing in the population at large. "Fear has broken through," he says, attributing that development to the Reagan administration's tough talk and ambitious weapons-building proposals. "Many are finding that they can cross a certain personal threshold and make a decision to do something, take some personal responsibility for combatting the nuclear weapons danger." Such involvement is intrinsically healthy for the individual, Lifton says, and could improve the national state of mind as well.

"Our political and military leaders sense fear and uneasiness in the population," he says, "and they say to us, 'We will make you feel more secure'--a psychological promise--'by building bigger and better weapons.' What they're doing is taking steps that objectively increase the threat and the danger in the name of a psychological sense of security. It's like a house in which the heat is increasing to the point of conflagration, but the thermostat is set so that it reads increasingly lower. A lot of us are asking what authentic security would consist of, and here one must start with the assumption that we can move toward security only by diminishing the number of nuclear weapons in the world through nuclear arms control and disarmament. We would then move toward a desirable state in which actual security parallels a psychological sense of security."

The first assumption in Lifton's formula is a disputed one, however. Among the defenders of deterrence, there is a widespread belief that some exit ramps from the arms race, however appealing on emotional, religious or moral grounds, could be more dangerous than the highway we would be leaving. The basic goal of the European peace movement, for example, is a nuclear-free Europe. But "a conventional war in the middle of Europe might well be almost as nasty for those in and around the battlefield as a nuclear war," argues Lawrence Freedman of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, in the December 1981 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "Furthermore, if the risks of the war turning nuclear have been reduced to a minimum, war itself might seem in some way 'safer.' "

Leon Sloss, a weapons analyst who has been in and out of government for 30 years and in 1978 gave his name to the so-called "Sloss Report" on limited nuclear options, believes psychic numbing is a real danger. "I like to think that I'm not as prone to that as some," he says, "but I can even see it in myself. People who are attracted to these problems are, I would have to say, a little more on the coolly intellectual side. . . . It's a little like when I was in the Bureau of the Budget and we dealt with dollars in numbers that were rounded off to the nearest tenth of a billion. It's very easy to forget that you are talking about weapons in the thousands that, if ever used, could cause devastation that we might not be able to deal with."

After leaving the State Department in 1978, Sloss says, he had a kind of mid-career crisis, spurred partly by concern for his own psychological well-being and partly by differences with his two college-age sons. "I said to myself, 'Do I really want to spend the rest of my life dealing with this rather unpleasant subject?' And I kind of made a conscious effort to branch out, but I found myself being dragged back into it. People called on me because of my expertise." Sloss has his own consulting firm in Rosslyn now, and nuclear weapons issues once again dominate his agenda. He says he is not unhappy about the turn of events. "It's hard to get away from, but there's a little of the candle and the moth here too. It has an attraction."

Beyond his guarded agreement about the risk of psychic numbing in high places, Sloss has little to say for the antinuclear movement and its picture of the world. "What could cause miscalculation by the Soviets, in my view," he says, "is if they believe that there are such strong feelings against nuclear weapons in the West that they can take action in Europe, let's say, or that the time has come to establish nuclear weapons in Cuba, and they think the U.S. is too divided to respond to that. In that sense, the antinuclear movement may be increasing the risk of war more than the hawks."

"My view is that in the time that I have--and my time-frame includes my life and that of my children--you try to do what you can that might make the world a little more secure. You do the possible." Sloss concedes that experts like himself may help define "the possible" by the act of resigning themselves to it--that skepticism about disarmament may be, in part, self-fulfilling. But "I consider disarmament relatively unlikely in any case," he says. "When I was in college I was a member of the United World Federalists, and I thought that was really the future--world government. Later I became convinced that while in the abstract that was the way to go, it was not something that I could do anything about in my lifetime."

A Lack of Credibility?

Conservatives worry that the U.S. deterrent may already have lost credibility because this country has recoiled from the ugly but necessary business of plotting a step-by-step nuclear-war-fighting plan. Deterrence depends not on our theoretical ability to deal this blow or that blow, but on "a plausible American victory strategy," says Colin Gray, who recently left the Hudson Institute to establish a new think tank based in McLean. "The United States must possess the ability to wage nuclear war rationally," says Gray, and that means keeping our policy free from the influence of "guilty" scientists and "religious, political-theoretical and frankly emotional premises."

But this is a view of rationality and emotion the antinuclear leaders refuse to accept. Lifton says that "people like Colin Gray turn the idea of rationality on its head. They misleadingly equate rationality with numbing and even immobilization of the general public."

"Very often, emotions are used as a derogatory term," says Toni Liversage, one of the founders of a Danish group called No to Nuclear Weapons. "We think we should use our emotions and our cool heads."

Disagreement over the role of emotion feeds a growing disagreement, particularly in Europe, over the identity of the key antagonists in the arms race: Is it West vs. East or is it the people vs. their leaders?

The defeat of SALT II and the popular rebellion of Nevadans and Utahans against the MX convinced Roger Molander that "the leave-it-to-the-experts approach was no longer working." "One of the challenges of people like myself and people at the highest level is to admit the failure of the last 15 years," Molander says now. He sees a need to change "the basic character of the relationship" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. "We're not just saying, 'Let's put nuclear war on the plate and contemplate it,' " he says. "We're saying, 'Let's put nuclear war and the Soviet Union on the plate together."

This is a goal that has also been stressed lately--and in terms with more of a psychological than a traditional political flavor to them--by George Kennan, one of the architects of postwar containment policy. The Soviets are rigid, jumpy, distrustful of foreigners and committed to an "antiquated ideology," Kennan argues, "but I do not see them as men anxious to expand their power by the direct use of their armed forces, although they could easily be frightened into taking actions that would seem to have this aim." On our side, Kennan has written, American leaders in and out of government are guilty of a "routine exaggeration of Moscow's military capabilities and of the supposed iniquity of Soviet intentions." The prevailing U.S. view of the Soviet Union betrays "an intellectual primitivism and naivete' unpardonable in a great government," according to Kennan. "I use the world naivete', because there is a naivete' of cynicism and suspicion just as there is a naivete' of innocence."

Psychiatrist William Davidson, president of the Washington-based Institute for Psychiatry and Foreign Affairs, makes a broader case against primitivism and "tribal thinking" in international affairs. Traditional diplomacy is not up to the challenge of the arms race, he says, and the only cure is for policymakers to begin paying "much greater attention to the cultural and the psychological factors" in international disagreements. The difficulty, according to Davidson, is that most politicians and diplomats don't like nonquantifiable information. "They say, 'That's soft data, we're into hard data.' "

The major obstacle to reversing the arms race is a lack of "realistic empathy" in both the U.S. and Soviet governments, says Ralph White, a social psychologist and Soviet specialist who spent 17 years with the U.S. Information Agency. "Both sides are scared stiff," he says, "but neither side is quite ready to admit it, and neither side is at all ready to see the fear on the other side."

If U.S. leaders understood the Soviets better, they would see military parity as irrelevant and strive for "sufficiency" instead, says White, echoing a theme of Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Jerome Frank. The Soviets were so traumatized by World World II, he argues, that if the United States and Western Europe jointly had two-thirds of the Soviets' conventional strength, "that would be plenty, I think, added to their natural revulsion against a big war to keep them from deliberately attacking . . . And the same way in the nuclear field. If we had a relatively invulnerable second-strike capability, mostly on submarines, I think they would be fully deterred from being the first to use nuclear weapons."

Another social psychologist, Herbert C. Kelman, has advanced the notion of "two-track diplomacy" as a way of correcting misperceptions. Because traditional diplomacy has to be a cynical business in which adversaries try to imagine worst-case scenarios, Kelman says it should be supplemented with unofficial, nonstructured contact that is "strategically optimistic" and "based on best-case analysis."

One group of Americans is trying to bypass the Reagan administration and create a second track of discussions on the arms-control problem itself. The Institute for Policy Studies has decided to hold a joint conference next year with the Soviet Union's Institute for Studies on the United States and Canada "to try to talk about new ideas for significant reversal of the arms race," according to Robert Borosage, the IPS' director. Borosage and a delegation that included Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore and Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser just spent a week in the Soviet Union, where, says Borosage, they found the same "crackpot realism" among Soviet arms-control specialists as among ours.

But most U.S.-Soviet specialists see the talk of psychology and misperceptions as part of a hopeless search for a shortcut through the highly technical problems of arms control. "I think this is all a myth, quite frankly," says Stephen Larrabee of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. "People are, for understandable reasons, fed up with counting nuclear warheads on a pin, but you can't get away from these problems."

"The problem is not misunderstanding," says Colin Gray. "We understand each other all too well."