Baseball has old-timers games, golf the seniors tour, and now the arms race -- the game where winner takes nothing -- has its retirees for peace. Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Paul Warnke and Gerard Smith are the former government players taking to the field this month to show the fans that the old form is there. Yesterday's sharp minds retain the cutting edge.

McNamara, Bundy, Warnke and Smith, plus six others, appear on the cover of the August issue of The Atlantic. They wrote "Back From the Brink: The Case for a New U.S. Nuclear Strategy." Although its prose style is what you'd expect from a committee -- dry-as-dust boring -- the essay is worth a long mull. And after that, a long lament.

Inearlier seasons, McNamara served as secretary of defense. Bundy was a special assistant to two presidents for national security. Warnke and Smith were directors of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. When holding power, they were reliable guardians of the national security bottle into which the presidents they loyally served put the nuclear genie. Now they worry that it's getting out. Their current belief is that the United States needs an alternative to the policy of first-use of nuclear weapons: The nation, they write in The Atlantic, "should base its military plans, training programs, defense budgets, weapons deployments and arms negotiations on the assumption that it will not initiate the use of nuclear weapons."

For sure, this is a dream article. It offers a shot in the arm for a peace movement that is accustomed to kicks in the teeth. The Atlantic editors are proud, naturally, of this catch. How often does a former secretary of defense -- one known as "Bomber Bob" when he ran the Pentagon from 1961 to 1968 and oversaw the escalation of the Vietnam War -- announce that he is "back from the brink"? What's the cover of a magazine for, if not to be given over, as is the August Atlantic, to showcasing McNamara and his band?

Something is missing, though. The editors should have commissioned an accompanying article explaining that nothing new is being said but only that new people are saying it. Daniel Ellsberg, another former Pentagon stalwart, but who has earned respect for his long and often unnoticed resistance to American militarism, has written that "the United States has used nuclear weapons about a dozen times or more since Nagasaki. We've used them in a way that you use a gun when you put it at somebody's head."

That sounds wild and fringy. And why not, we think, it's Ellsberg. But here are McNamara, Bundy and the others saying it: "Although the fact is not widely understood, American policy in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere contemplates the first use of nuclear weapons. The United States threatened or considered the use of nuclear weapons outside Europe on a number of occasions in the 1950s, when it was official U.S. policy to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in any large-scale conflict . . . In 1975, the Ford administration made public that the United States had stored nuclear weapons in Korea and had explicitly threatened to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, if necessary, to defend South Korea. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan have both implied that the United States would use nuclear weapons, if necessary, to counter Soviet aggression in the Persian Gulf."

Withthe right wing clamoring for more and larger nukes, and usually getting them from a pliant Congress and president, it doesn't take much to be a disarmer. In fact, the authors of "Back From the Brink" favor no more than selective disarmament. They don't call for a reduction in the military budget. It's the opposite: "Star Wars," they tremble, is bad news because it "will consume billions of dollars that might be used to upgrade conventional capabilities." They say it repeatedly: Their plan is a way "of increasing the U.S. capability to fight conventionally." What military contractor won't joyfully accept that?

Instead of "Back From the Brink," the Atlantic article should be titled, "Back to Old-Fashioned Killing." McNamara's group represents the new breed of doves who want to stop nuclear war while staying as ravenous as ever for nonnuclear war. Or in other words, inescapable nuclear wars that can kill the tribal elders are bad, but wars in which all the dying is done elsewhere and by the young are fine. It was reported last year that an average of 41,000 people are killed each month in the world's 50-odd armed conflicts or wars.

By being selective, this latest crew of back-from-the-brinkers carefully maintains a rational image. They aren't running with the pack of Daniel Ellsberg, who goes from arrest to arrest at bomb test sites. Go too far in your opposition to America's militarism and society will sentence you, if not to jail, to irrelevance. But inch ahead just far enough, like being where the mainline peace movement was 30 years ago, and some undaring magazine will splash you on the cover.