It was nightfall in Moscow. On foot and on his own, Richard Perle began exploring the streets.

Last year was the first time in Russia for the then-assistant secretary of defense, sometimes called the "Prince of Darkness" for his unremittingly gloomy view of the Soviet menace and his unrelenting efforts over the past two decades to black out arms control.

"You've got to be crazy," he had warned a reporter about to embark for Moscow in 1971. Perle was then the bright young man on the staff of Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson, the Democrats' chief hawk. "They could throw you in Lubyanka prison."

"I thought he was kidding," says the reporter. "But he wasn't."

But now in Moscow himself, his instincts as the "Prince of Darkness" gave way to those of the gourmet. He had heard tales of the wonderful richness of Russian ice cream, and his evening wandering turned into an obsessive search for dessert. "I had a hard time finding any," he complained.

Back at the conference, Perle's hard line took precedence over his waistline. Soviet officialdom was consumed with interest in his simultaneous charm and hostility. His rise was something they must have implicitly understood. He had not emerged from campaigns and elections, but from byzantine bureaucratic struggle. His authority derived from a series of powerful mentors. He propelled his cause through a tightly knit network of like-minded apparatchiks. And he believed politics was determined by the "correlation of forces" -- a phrase he acknowledges borrowing from the Russians.

Please come back, the Russians implored. And an invitation to a conference the following month in Riga on the Baltic Sea was issued. Alas, at the last moment, Perle could not shake free from Washington. His place was filled by Strobe Talbott, the Time magazine Washington bureau chief who had detailed Perle's elaborate efforts at blocking an arms agreement in his book "Deadly Gambits."

"Where's Mr. Perle?" demanded Gen. Nicholai Chervov, chief of the arms control section of the Soviet military's general staff.

"He decided to stay home," Talbott says he replied.

"That's a great shame," lamented Chervov. "I was looking forward to continuing my discussions with Mr. Perle." The thought was much on his mind. Three times during the conference Chervov mournfully remarked, "It's too bad Perle is not here."

"I think we understand each other," says Perle, who casts himself as a "realist" against the mush-headed "idealists." "I rather like talking to the Soviets. They have adopted the realist view. It's pretty unvarnished."

Out of office since June, Perle finds himself suspended between realist and idealist poles. He is drawn to celebrate the success of the pending treaty on intermediate-range missiles in Europe and the Dec. 7 summit, claiming that his sponsorship of the "zero option" vindicates his method of dealing on arms control. At the same time, he is drawn to criticize the treaty, as he criticizes all arms agreements, for sapping the will for eternal vigilance.

Perle's paradox is also Ronald Reagan's. Together, the gray eminence and the Great Communicator approach the apparent moment of triumph against a backdrop of irony. By Perle's admission, the agreement is "minor," with little strategic meaning, though it has enormous political import. But in terms of sheer policy, it is a cosmetic agreement, the very kind Perle and Reagan campaigned against in the past.

Wohlstetter's Pool

Perle's story is the essence of the controversy over America's nuclear policy since the late 1960s. He has been a key figure in every debate over every major nuclear issue, and the current politics of arms control reflect, in great part, the determined and sophisticated work of this one man and his coterie.

The measure of his persistent influence can be found in the agenda of the upcoming summit:

The treaty the U.S. and Soviet leaders may sign embodies a proposal Perle forced through the warring factions of the executive branch.

The two leaders are almost certain to debate a Perle-inspired effort to eviscerate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; if unresolved, the issue could scuttle the summit and future agreements.

From the beginning, Perle's ultimate power base was a father figure. "Richard's effectiveness was really quite easy to explain," says a conservative ally on Capitol Hill. "It's 99.9 percent based on his relationship with {Caspar} Weinberger." And before that, Sen. Jackson. And before that, conservative establishmentarian Paul Nitze. And before that, nuclear high priest Albert Wohlstetter. They gave him his hunting license.

The beginning of this story may be traced to the chance meeting beside a Hollywood swimming pool of a teen-age boy and the high priest of nuclear theology.

Richard Perle is the son of a textile manufacturer and a housewife. His father was also a gambler; his brother is retarded. The family ate many of its meals in delicatessens. In his junior year at Hollywood High School, Richard sat next to Joan Wohlstetter, daughter of the author of "The Delicate Balance of Nuclear Terror." Joan liked Richard and, he says, "she invited me over for a swim." There he met Albert Wohlstetter.

At the Rand Corp., an Air Force-sponsored think tank, Wohlstetter was the theorist of nuclear warfare. Rand's members prided themselves on their ability to parse rarefied forms of abstraction. The place was detached from politics and yet a crucible of U.S. strategy; from its theories flowed billion of dollars in weapons systems.

Wohlstetter was of a school of nuclear strategists whose teachings included: the idea of a first strike and, it followed, the ability to launch a second strike; the "window of vulnerability" through which may fly numerically superior Russian bombers and missiles; a profound suspicion of arms agreements; and a demand for complete verification of Soviet compliance with treaties, which it was doubted could be satisfied. Wohlstetter's Pentagon briefings, spinning out these notions, were legendary.

After reading Wohlstetter's 1959 Foreign Affairs article on the "balance of terror," the young Perle and the master strategist "had a long conversation." It marked Perle's induction into the gnostic mysteries of nuclear theory.

Richard and Joan went their separate ways. But Richard and Albert "stayed in touch," says Perle. "It was a close personal friendship, as well as an intellectual relationship."

Wohlstetter's ideas became Perle's ideas; his network Perle's; and, as Perle traveled through the bureaucratic catacombs of Washington, his first mentor remained on call as his intellectual Virgil -- always "enormously helpful," says Perle. He himself was never an original strategist. His views were mostly elaborations of Wohlstetter's.

The Bunker

After Perle had been certified at the University of Southern California, Princeton and the London School of Economics, he got a job with Westinghouse's in-house think tank in Waltham, Mass. But he didn't stay long.

In Washington, in 1969, a newly formed group called the Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense Policy inquired if the 27-year-old Perle would be interested in becoming its chief researcher. The recommendation was made by one committee founder -- Wohlstetter -- to another -- Paul Nitze. The torch of Perle's mentorhood had been passed.

The group lobbied to fund an antiballistic missile system that, theoretically, could preserve a U.S. second-strike capability by knocking enough incoming Soviet rockets out of the sky.

"We raised $15,000, of which I put up half," says Nitze. Though the battle was lost, Perle was established in the capital.

Nitze recommended him for his next job. While making the rounds for the ABM, Perle happened upon the office of Sen. Jackson, where he discovered like-minded souls. They were similarly taken. "He was the brightest thing around," says Dorothy Fosdick, who was Jackson's chief foreign policy aide. The match was a natural.

Jackson's nuclear strategy rested on the belief that more was better. International power, as he understood it, flowed from the tip of a warhead: The more warheads a missile could carry, the more the power. From the early 1950s, he preached that the Russians were gaining superiority and the U.S. faced a present danger. The bigger the military budget, the greater the deterrence.

His anticommunism was implacable, but not of the same stripe as that of the Republican right. It was roughly equivalent to the position assumed by many European socialists at the height of the Cold War. "Scoop was very labor-oriented," says Fosdick. "He believed the socialist parties in Europe understood the Soviet threat better than some of the liberals and establishment types here."

Perle's parents had died in 1969, the year he joined Jackson's staff, and he came to look upon the senator as a father. "He was paternalistic in every sense, whether it was big budgets for welfare programs or looking after young members of his staff," Perle says. "He was unusually so with me because my father had just died. He felt every young person ought to have a parent. He came naturally to that protective role. I get choked up talking about Scoop even now."

If Jackson was the father, Dorothy Fosdick was the mother. Perle and the other staffers referred to her as "the bubbe," the Yiddish word for grandmother. Her father was Harry Emerson Fosdick, the liberal pastor of New York's Riverside Church. She herself had been deeply involved in the old left, and her hard line was the outcome of her political passage. Communism, the god that failed, was still the pole star by which the Jackson office charted its political direction.

When Perle first joined the staff, according to a friend, he openly called himself "a socialist." "Social democrat would be a more accurate description of how I thought of myself," he explains.

The inhabitants of Jackson's office labeled their quarters "the bunker," which implied a certain spirit that bound the staffers together. "We had a vision of fighting the lonely battle against the forces of darkness, a threat that we were about to be overwhelmed," says a former Jackson aide and Perle friend.

Jackson's growing influence was translated, particularly by Perle, into an extensive network. "The network dates from the earliest days," says a fellow "bunker" occupant. In the beginning it included the small band of Wohlstetter-influenced strategists; congressional aides who followed the lead of Jackson's right-hand man; and conservative columnists, such as Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who found Perle to be a useful stream of information.

To those dug in in "the bunker," Henry Kissinger, who stood astride foreign policy, loomed as the chief villain. They despised detente, which they saw as a warrant for the Soviets to gain nuclear superiority. In 1972, Jackson worked against SALT I, dispatching Perle as his agent to stir up opposition. "I collaborated with the staffs of 20 to 25 senators getting speeches written," he says.

His consolation was what is commonly referred to as the Jackson Amendment, which Perle helped write. It stipulated that future agreements must not limit U.S. strategic weapons, according to Jackson's and Perle's particular definitions, at a level inferior to the Russians'.

The Nixon administration argued that SALT I established a strategic balance, in spite of minor numerical differences in the nuclear arsenals. Perle, however, saw in these disparities the opportunity to raise fears about the Russians and arms control. The numbers, he explained to a fellow Senate staffer, were "esthetically displeasing."

In the end, unable to defeat the treaty, Jackson voted for it; it was politically untenable for a Democrat with presidential aspirations to do otherwise. But Jackson's hostility to the U.S. delegation was virulent and open. "Our people caved in, let's face it," he said. He and Perle were determined to make trouble for future agreements.

Throughout SALT I, Perle had kept careful track of the progress of the U.S. delegation. His most important contact within the administration was John Lehman, then on the National Security Council staff. And, Perle points out, "I had quite a good relationship with {then Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander} Haig. He was easy to talk to."

In early 1973, after Nixon's reelection, a bureaucratic guillotine swiftly detached about a dozen key arms controllers from the SALT I/Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty delegation and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The politics were exceedingly complex, but what is clear is that Kissinger, under constant bombardment for detente, did not protect those who served him. And Nixon sought to assuage the powerful Jackson by handing over human sacrifices.

"When the purge happened, I asked Perle about it," says an ousted member of the U.S. delegation. "He said, 'Well, it wasn't anything personal.' "

"They were people Scoop had no confidence in," says Fosdick about those purged. "They were probably doomed anyway."

"Whatever was done was done by the people who employed them," says Perle. "The notion that I was responsible for this was ludicrous."

But the purge was a stroke for Perle and his network. On the strength of Jackson's recommendation, Lt. Gen. Edward Rowny was appointed as the new representative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the arms talks. Also on Jackson's advice, Fred Ikle' from Rand was named director of ACDA. Ikle' later named Perle's friend Lehman as his deputy.

Rowny, as chief U.S. negotiator to the START talks under Reagan, became a crucial Perle ally -- "a vessel," says a source who worked with Rowny. And Ikle', while nominally Perle's superior at the Pentagon, never exercised real power over him, according to various sources.

In 1974, "the bunker" struck a blow against the economic component of detente by linking trade with Russia to restrictions on the emigration of Soviet Jews: the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The argument that the Soviets could not be trusted on human rights was a powerful rhetorical tool used in the opposition to arms control. If they could not be trusted on the one, how could they be trusted on the other? To this day, the Soviets consider Jackson-Vanik an impediment to normal relations with the United States.

The Power Vacuum

During the Watergate scandal, the power vacuum widened. The Ford administration had little time to establish a new coherence in arms control policy. Perle flourished and moved into a new phase of influence.

"Perle would hear from friends in the executive branch that he was losing on some issue in the interagency process," says a former Senate staffer who observed him closely. "It would be leaked to the press that Jackson was threatening a hearing. It was an exercise in intimidation to players opposing their network."

Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was so filled with frustration at the antidetente campaign conducted by "the bunker" that at a private meeting in 1976 he pointedly raised the subjects of leaks and loyalty. He claimed "communists" had infiltrated Jackson's staff, and he named two names -- Fosdick and Perle. Jackson was infuriated. And Rockefeller eventually apologized. But nothing was resolved. The campaign against detente continued.

In 1976, a presidential election year, detente's critics raised the decibel level over what they viewed as Russia's growing aggressiveness and potential for military superiority. Ford's new CIA director, George Bush, readily acceded to their demands for an assessment independent of the agency's own experts. Thus was organized the B-Team.

Its director was a Harvard professor of 19th-century Russian history, Richard Pipes, who had been discovered by talent scout Perle and imported to Washington as a consultant to Jackson. (Nitze was also on the nine-member B-Team. And its technical consultant was Albert Wohlstetter.) Unsurprisingly, the B-Team produced a grim view of Soviet capabilities and intentions.

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, Perle was at first "ambivalent," according to a close associate. "He felt he almost had to be an improvement over Ford and Kissinger. He thought that maybe Carter was a hawk."

A month after Carter's inauguration, Jackson submitted to Carter a 23-page, single-spaced memorandum on arms control, written by Perle. Much of it was polemic against Kissinger and "the burden of past mistakes." In "the bunker" the memo was seen as a first and last chance for the new administration. It was, according to a Perle ally and former Pentagon official, an effort to "establish a framework different than one with vomit all over it."

Carter circulated the memo among his senior foreign policy advisers, but none regarded it as a serious basis for proceeding. It was "so irrelevant," says Walter Slocombe, then a high-ranking Defense Department official. "It was simply a list of objectives which there was no way of getting, no chance of negotiating. It had no sense of priorities. And if you couldn't get these things, what would be acceptable to Senator Jackson?"

None of the neoconservatives, who saw Jackson as their champion, received the influential posts they desired. In "the bunker," Carter's appointment of Paul Warnke as ACDA director and chief SALT negotiator was greeted as a declaration of ideological war.

"It was the last job the Jackson wing of the party might get," says Warnke. "And they had been shut out."

Warnke, a top Pentagon official in the Johnson era and then the law partner of former defense secretary Clark Clifford, was a member of the Washington peerage, and did not share the assumptions of the hawks on arms control. In Foreign Policy magazine, he compared the superpowers' arms race to "apes on a treadmill," a metaphor that enraged the conservatives. Nitze, who had served in the Pentagon with him, had a longstanding antipathy toward Warnke and now regarded him as the epitome of all that was wrongheaded. Nitze issued a call to arms.

But the campaign against Warnke's confirmation was more than an effort to pull down an individual. "The real question," says a former Jackson aide who participated in the anti-Warnke effort, "was whether you could get 34 votes. Then any agreement he produced would be in trouble from the word go."

Jackson's office turned into a battle station. "Most of the work," says this former member of Jackson's staff, "was done out of Richard's living room and 'the bunker.' " Once again, Perle wrote dozens of senators' speeches. On March 9, 1977, Warnke was approved as SALT negotiator by a 58-40 margin -- "a symbolic victory," says the source.

As SALT negotiators slowly crept toward a new treaty in the late 1970s, its opponents rapidly mobilized. In the public arena, their principal vehicle was the Committee on the Present Danger, founded by Nitze and Wohlstetter, among others. Perle, of course, was a charter member. The committee advanced an updated "window of vulnerability" theory, portentously warning that Soviet nuclear superiority was translating into a geopolitical offensive.

The administration tried to placate Jackson and Perle, assigning two plenipotentiaries to Perle -- Slocombe of the Defense Department and William Hyland of the National Security Council. "One would have thought we were dealing with a foreign country," says Slocombe. He adds that Perle had "extraordinarily good sources within the government. He knew a lot of what was going on inside."

The president, though, clung to the hope that his enemies would somehow have a change of heart. "President Carter always had the quixotic view that they could be brought around," says Warnke. "The president didn't realize how intractable they were . . . I really don't think President Carter knew what was happening."

When Carter departed for Vienna to sign SALT II in June 1979, Jackson deployed Perle's favorite metaphor, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's trip to Munich in 1938: "It is all ominously reminiscent of Great Britain in the 1930s, when one government pronouncement after another was issued to assure the British public that Hitler's Germany would never achieve military equality -- let alone superiority. The failure to face reality today, like the failure to do so then -- that is the mark of appeasement." The speech so rattled Carter that he told aides that even if it poured rain in Vienna, he would not unfurl an umbrella, Chamberlain's trademark accessory.

Another humiliating send-off came from Rowny, the Joint Chiefs' SALT representative, who announced he would not attend the treaty signing. Throughout the negotiations, according to a Perle ally, Rowny had been "a major source" of information to "the bunker." "In retrospect, why keep him {Rowny} around?" wonders Slocombe. "People maintained a naive view that you could get Jackson to support the agreement."

Then the Senate Armed Services Committee produced a report, at Jackson's direction and written by Perle, recommending against SALT II ratification. "It so poisoned the atmosphere," says a former Pentagon official and Perle ally, still gleeful in the memory.

After the Russians invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, the death knell sounded for Senate passage of the treaty. And Carter, facing a tough reelection campaign, postponed consideration. It was an implicit admission that he had failed to fill the power vacuum.

In the meantime, as the vital signs of SALT became faint, Perle set himself up as an international arms broker and defense consultant with his old friend John Lehman. But Perle and Lehman, brothers in ideological arms, fell out over money. The rift was so rancorous after their partnership in the Abington Corp. was dissolved that they refused to speak to each other or even occupy the same room. Thus the secretary of the Navy and the assistant secretary of defense passed their headiest days of power, which they had labored for years to gain, as personal antagonists.

As the election approached, the occupants and alumni of "the bunker" prepared en masse to vote for Ronald Reagan. But before committing the heretical act of voting Republican, they asked for Jackson's dispensation. "You're a free woman," Fosdick recalls Jackson telling her.

After Reagan's victory, secretary of state-designate Haig offered Perle a job in Foggy Bottom. But Perle did not leap at a managerial post that would deter him from influence over the arms control agenda. Then Weinberger made his offer. "Marvelous!" says Fosdick, describing Jackson's reaction.

At last, Perle had arrived at the Pentagon station.

Tomorrow: SDI and Perle's last stand.