Richard Perle's ultimate crusade was launched by what President Reagan called his "dream" -- the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

The consequences were potentially immense: Two summits between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev have been upset by Reagan's embrace of SDI, and the administration's position has been a stumbling block to the third, scheduled to begin Dec. 7.

But last week, the nation seemed to awaken from the "dream." Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, perhaps its leading defender, left office, and his chief arms control aide involuntarily followed. Although the president yesterday proclaimed SDI "a cornerstone of our security strategy for the 1990s and beyond," Congress, perhaps foreseeing the end of an era, has delicately put the vision beyond Reagan's reach.

The campaign for SDI has been a textbook example of Perle deploying his own strategic weaponry -- his network throughout the national security bureaucracies. And it illustrates Perle's commitment to undoing what he considers "bad" arms agreements with the Soviet Union.

Out of office, Perle had hoped to exercise influence at the Pentagon mainly by remote control. But he overreached himself. On Capitol Hill, Perle's ally, the late Sen. Henry Jackson, has been replaced in influence by Sen. Sam Nunn, who opposed Perle's goals and was appalled by his maneuvers. And the influence of Perle's network was overthrown the day Frank Carlucci moved into Weinberger's office.

Last Friday, Perle's longtime deputy and would-be successor, Frank Gaffney, was hurtled out the window. Carlucci has publicly endorsed SDI, but in an instant, he had toppled the Weinberger-Perle axis.

"I'm very unhappy about that," says Richard Perle.

Though the 46-year-old Perle has been out of his Pentagon office since June, his efforts dominate the present and have set the stage for the future. Reagan's nuclear legacy remains inextricably bound up with Perle's works over the past 20 years. Still, the president's sudden allegiance to SDI surprised even his closest associates.

In March 1983, Perle and Weinberger were in Portugal for a meeting of NATO defense ministers. Around midnight, as Weinberger was about to go to sleep, a cable arrived containing the final draft of the president's speech on the new defense budget.

"I was asked to take a look at it," says Perle. "There, tacked on to the end of the speech, were a dozen paragraphs outlining the Strategic Defense Initiative -- and by the way folks, that's all folks. I was stunned."

What Reagan was about to propose was nothing less than a revolution in nuclear doctrine -- "my dream," he called it. SDI was heralded by the president as a veritable astrodome, able to shield the nation from all incoming missiles.

Above all, it denied the logic behind a quarter century of superpower arms control. That logic was codified in the ABM Treaty, which dictated that neither side would attempt to build a defensive system. Without this treaty, negotiators from both sides agreed, Russia and the United States would be driven to a endlessly spiraling arms race.

Proceeding on SDI required an assault on the treaty. The initiative for SDI came from Reagan; the tactics against the treaty came from Perle.

When Perle, in Portugal, first learned about Reagan's "dream," he was disturbed that no advance preparations had been made for this startling change in nuclear doctrine. He banged on Weinberger's door, and got him to leave the matter "in my hands." Perle managed to delay Reagan's speech for a day. "But," says Perle, "in the end they decided to go forward."

The incident was revealing: Here was the president revolutionizing nuclear strategy, but informing his old friend, the defense secretary, only at the last minute. Weinberger then deferred to his deputy. And Perle quickly mustered his mental and bureaucratic resources in the effort to turn the event to his purposes.

The Reinterpretation

By 1985, Perle's rivals for control of the arms control agenda within the administration had vanished, including Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs Richard Burt, Perle's generational peer and chief rival, who went into retreat to West Germany as ambassador in 1985. "A marvelous opportunity," says Perle. "My immediate reaction was: Why didn't I think of that?"

With his adversaries gone, Perle's campaign against arms control escalated. To emasculate and, he hoped, to kill the ABM Treaty, Perle exploited Reagan's SDI vision.

It began with a memorandum in the summer of 1985.

Fred Ikle', a longtime member of the Perle network and the undersecretary of defense, discovered a young lawyer, a former New York assistant district attorney, a specialist in pornography cases, Philip Kunsberg, working for the CIA. "I asked Kunsberg to go look at the treaty," says Perle.

The resulting 19-page report asserted that the treaty did not limit SDI at all; what was wrong, it said, was the earlier interpretation.

"I almost fell off my chair," says Perle -- a phrase he has repeated many times to many groups. He then unveiled the memo as the official Pentagon position to an interagency group on SDI.

The State Department assigned its legal adviser, Abraham Sofaer, to conduct a formal study. "I'm certain Richard talked to Sofaer about it," says a former Pentagon official close to Perle.

"I don't recall speaking to Sofaer," says Perle. But when told that a close colleague said he had spoken to him, Perle revised his statement: "Maybe I did." (Sofaer could not be reached.)

Sofaer's report, not surprisingly, favored the reinterpretation. The day after it was produced, on Oct. 4, 1985, high-level officials from State, Defense, the NSC and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency met. "I proposed," says Perle, "that we accept this interpretation of the treaty as a consensus."

Two days later, on "Meet the Press," national security adviser Robert McFarlane announced that this radical reinterpretation of the ABM Treaty was now administration policy. But what Perle had proposed and McFarlane announced had not yet been approved by the president.

Then, in October 1986, Perle found himself where he had never been before: at a summit, in Reykjavik, seated across the table from Russians, presenting a grandiose plan for the eventual elimination of all ballistic missiles and compliance with the ABM Treaty for 10 years. But Gorbachev refused to entertain the idea that the treaty had an expiration date and, moreover, that it allowed testing of SDI components outside of the laboratory.

The summit was over. Perle's brief, ambitious effort at arms control had been dashed by his efforts to undermine arms control.

A month later, the Republicans lost their majority in the Senate. And Sam Nunn became chairman of the Armed Services Committee, filling a crucial part of what had been a power vacuum.

The Senate Strikes Back

The Perle network had thought of Nunn as one of its own. As a senator in the 1970s, he had generally followed Henry Jackson's lead, which meant taking Perle's counsel. "Scoop always offered Richard's services to Nunn," says a former Jackson aide. And Nunn had been part of the coalition that kept SALT II from securing support in the Senate.

Unlike the others in the network, however, Nunn's political bloodlines ran back to Georgia, to the pre-Jackson rulers of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Vinson, his great-uncle, and Richard Russell, who stood for loyalty to the Senate above any ideological imperative.

Since Reagan's second inauguration, Nunn and Perle had fought a bitter running battle hidden from view. The source of contention was the obscure Standing Consultative Commission, which is the embodiment of arms control in practice. Twice a year, this diplomatic body brings together U.S. and Soviet officials in Geneva to resolve disputes about adherence to existing agreements.

Perle has loathed the SCC since its establishment by the ABM Treaty. In Weinberger's Nov. 13, 1985, memo to the president on the eve of the Geneva summit, written by Perle and leaked to the press, the SCC was denounced as "a diplomatic carpet under which Soviet violations have been continuously swept, an Orwellian memory-hole into which our concerns have been dumped like yesterday's trash."

Perle's loathing led him to seek to intimidate and fire its commissioner, Gen. Richard Ellis, a former chief of the Strategic Air Command. But Nunn shielded Ellis. If he had not, says a Senate source close to Nunn, Ellis could have been "run off." As it was, the administration deliberately "underutilized" the forum, according to a House Intelligence Committee report issued last week. Contradicting Perle's accusations, it stated that the SCC "has in the past resolved differences . . . and clarified ambiguous situations."

The Nunn-Perle clash had taken a more personal turn in 1986 over Perle's proposal to turn his expert knowledge of bureaucratic infighting into a novel -- which evoked a six-figure level of enthusiasm from a publisher. The news evoked outrage from Nunn, who attempted to make Perle appear less a man of principle and more another placeman for profit.

"Perle," Nunn said, "must choose between remaining one of the principal architects of U.S. security policy or undertaking to become a best-selling novelist." Perle, for his part, called Nunn's strike "intemperate and overblown," though he momentarily withdrew the book proposal.

Then Nunn set his sights on Perle's ABM reinterpretation. For three days last March, after a lengthy review of the treaty and Sofaer's study, Nunn held forth on the Senate floor. He called Sofaer's claims "absurd . . . illogical . . . woefully inadequate . . . ideologically driven . . . fundamentally flawed."

"Furthermore," said Nunn, the Reagan administration's reinterpretation "constitutes a fundamental constitutional challenge to the Senate as a whole . . ."

Perle explodes at what he considers Nunn's ignorance and ingratitude.

"I think," he says, "that my view on this is more authoritative than Sam Nunn's, who wasn't there." Yes, it was Perle who was Jackson's strategist -- not Nunn. And it was Perle who helped advance Nunn in the Senate. "Scoop made Sam Nunn vice chairman on the Government Operations Committee, and I was all for it." And Nunn's reference regarding the ABM Treaty to "the rule of law" was empty: "It's rhetoric." And Nunn's motive was purely political: "I don't think it's a very effective way to run for president."

Past as Present

But Nunn was not running for president and he was not alone in his criticism of the ABM Treaty's reinterpretation; the treaty's chief negotiator, Gerard C. Smith, called it "disinformation."

On March 26, the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees held an unusual joint hearing on the treaty. It was something more: a shadow play of one of the most painful episodes in the history of arms control -- the 1973 purge of the ABM Treaty delegation.

The hearing room was filled with a ghost -- Jackson's -- and with losers of the purge, who were now witnesses against the reinterpretation. Perle branded their effort "treaty-gate."

Perle himself played the role of necromancer, communing with the spirit of the departed Jackson, who had initiated the great purge but had also voted for the ABM Treaty.

"I lived through that ratification record and I remember it very well, indeed," Perle testified. ". . . The thing that stands out most clearly is the paucity of discussion on the floor of the United States Senate about the issue that is now under discussion."

"Not Scoop Jackson," growled Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). "Thirteen pages of questions on exotic systems in the record. Thirteen pages . . ."

"Indeed," Perle shot back. "I wrote most of those." Once again, he was staffing Jackson -- not the man now, but the icon.

Sofaer, a small, eager man, seemed like a nervous terrier about to be reprimanded. Before his appearance he had conceded that his study "did not provide a complete portrayal of the ratification proceedings," and that he "did not review this material personally." He blamed it all on "young lawyers" on his staff.

Now he told the senators: "Part of what I said there was accurate," about his previous testimony before the Armed Services Committee. He promised he would restudy the treaty.

Perle's circle was unhappy with the hearing, especially with Sofaer's performance. "It's unfortunate Sofaer is as apologetic as he is," complained a former Pentagon official.

On April 29, the joint committee called a lawyer who had worked for Sofaer, William J. Sims, who testified that it was Sofaer -- not "young lawyers" -- who selectively used documents to justify the reinterpretation. But, Sims said, Sofaer was ultimately not in command. "OSD {Office of the Secretary of Defense} seemed to be in the driver's seat," he testified. And he singled out Richard Perle by name.

On Sept. 17, the Senate by a 20-vote margin voted to prohibit testing of SDI components without its prior approval, thus upholding the ABM Treaty. Perle's effort to rewrite history was undone, partly by the record bequeathed by Jackson.

Last week, as Weinberger was leaving the Pentagon after seven years, Carlucci and White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker reached an accord with Nunn and Congress: In effect, SDI would be restricted by the traditional interpretation of the ABM Treaty for one year -- that is, until Reagan leaves office.

The Ironies

What everanyone proposed on arms control, it had been Perle's tactic to up the ante. He always presented himself as a believer in "good" arms control, stymied alternative initiatives and forwarded proposals that invariably met with Russian rejection.

The element unaccounted for in Perle's calculations was Gorbachev, who, in March 1985, filled the power vacuum in Russia. He also leaped obstacles to an INF agreement by saying yes to almost every maximalist U.S. position -- and then upping the ante himself.

"I don't know," says Perle about whether Gorbachev is different from past Soviet leaders and whether his efforts at change are more than public relations ploys. "I can only hypothesize. He recognizes the system is not working well . . . This is not the first reformist leader in the Soviet Union. Virtually every Soviet leader at the outset has had a reformist quality. I just don't know."

Last week, in his U.S. News & World Report column, Perle resolved his nagging doubts, writing that there is "not a shred of evidence" that Gorbachev desires "a respite from the burdens of military spending, a reordering of priorities . . ."

What Perle always feared most about arms control was its effect on American politics. The naive public, led by naive politicians, would be deceived into believing a treaty really reduced tensions; defenses would be lowered, an opening for the first strike created.

But the immediate political effect of the treaty for which he bears a major responsibility has been to create a schism within the Republican Party. Senators and presidential candidates challenging the accord, in fact, are basing their opposition on grounds that Perle pioneered.

For decades, Soviet cheating has been an article of faith of those opposed to arms control, and the arguments that verifying Soviet compliance is nearly impossible were finely honed by Perle during the SALT II debate. Because perfect verification is impossible, it is something like proving the existence of God. If the Soviets are successful in keeping their weapons invisible, how can anyone know they are there?

But three presidents -- Nixon, Ford and Carter -- rejected the Catch-22 of perfect verification. They believed that potential Soviet cheating could be detected long before U.S. security could be endangered. And so they proceeded on arms control.

"The Soviet Union will exploit agreements that can't be verified," says Perle. He adds: "There will always be uncertainty about Soviet behavior, some ambiguity about what they're doing." He explains further, "Verification is very important. The American people distrust the Soviet Union . . . It's important politically."

And Perle has exploited this distrust for years, often citing the appeasement of Hitler at Munich. The application of the Munich analogy to arms control is now employed by presidential hopeful Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who, in a speech on the INF accord, warned of a "nuclear Munich." (Perle still calls himself a "Jackson Democrat," but the candidate he is advising is Kemp. "I haven't been asked by other campaigns," Perle says.)

Perle always had the suspicion that arms negotiators would become consumed with the process and lose sight of the desired goal. He had hurled this polemical point at the supporters of SALT II. But Reagan's rhetorical abandonment in 1986 of adherence to SALT II, at Perle's prodding, made it apparent that the Russians could be free to deploy as many strategic weapons as they wish. The loophole drains the proposed INF Treaty of "military substance," says James P. Rubin, research director of the Arms Control Association. "This is a Perle-sponsored treaty that falls short of the old Perle standards. Maybe Perle himself lost sight of his goals and got caught up in the process."

On Oct. 3, partly in recognition of the new "loophole," the Senate voted to require the United States to stay within the SALT II limits -- another blow against Perle's legacy.

The approach of the summit has accelerated the decline of Perle's influence. Five years have passed since the ill-fated "walk in the woods" of U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze and Soviet negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky, who informally worked out a plan for reducing intermediate-range missiles in Europe. The Reagan administration is now ready to sign an agreement that is less acceptable to America's NATO allies than the celebrated "walk."

By defending an arms control agreement before the Senate, the administration will be defending the notion that the U.S. can do business with the Russians. All the abstractions set against this by Perle and his network for nearly two decades are about to be settled when the scratch of Reagan's signature on the treaty is heard.

As if to underline the point, Perle's former deputy, Frank Gaffney -- who had followed in Perle's footsteps since their days together in Jackson's "bunker" -- was, on the summit's eve, removed from his Pentagon job. And Perle raised his level of criticism of the treaty he had advocated.

"The administration," he says, "has made a serious mistake negotiating against a deadline. The Soviets always exploit this. If the desire for the treaty leads the administration to make foolish concessions, then what they'll get will be unratifiable. It will be rejected."

On His Own

For the first time in his career, Perle is without a mentor.

" 'Are you for us or the Soviets?' It intimidates some people in the hands of someone who's powerful because he works for people who are powerful," says Paul Warnke, the former chief SALT II negotiator. "But I don't see how Perle without a Jackson or a Weinberger can intimidate anyone."

Perle has privately taken to lavishing praise on Mortimer Zuckerman, the owner of U.S. News, who has commissioned his monthly column. But this is a case of an aspiring press lord purchasing a certain Washington byline, not a case of mentor and prote'ge'.

"For most of the 1980s," reflects John Ritch, a top Democratic Senate aide who has known Perle since the 1972 SALT I debate, "Richard had the 'correlation of forces' with him -- geriatric Soviet leaders and a president whose ignorance, premises and dreams played into Richard's strength. Once he had the Pentagon nuclear job, dropping spanners into the arms control machinery wasn't even full-time work. Now the advent of Gorbachev changes everything. But Richard had his moment."

Perle's immediate struggle, however, is with his word processor. The initial payment of his $300,000 advance for his novel, "Memoranda," has been deposited; the manuscript must be produced.

Some months ago, on his way from the Pentagon to a dinner at the Cosmos Club, yet another tribute upon his leaving office, an anxious Perle pulled his BMW to the curb. His writing habits, he confessed, were terrible. His famous memos were mainly scribbled at the last minute, from midnight to 3 a.m. How could he pace himself? He had chosen to write a novel in the form of memos because memos were something he knew how to write. But how to structure the material? How to develop characters?

Now he belongs to the book reviewers.