FOR THE MOMENT, anyway, the President seems to have come out at the right place on his neutron-weapons decision. He has kept in train the activities that will make production of those weapons possible within about a year's time (that is, he has not called off production); and he has said that he will decide "later" whether actually to start up such production when it becomes possible to do so. The production decision, Mr. Carter said in a statement issued from the White House on Friday, would be "influenced by the degree to which the Soviet Union shows restraint in its conventional and nuclear arms programs and force deployments affecting the security of the United States." Meanwhile, the relevant weapons will be modernized and made ready to receive either the neutron or other improved shells and warheads.
The President, in our view, has conditioned his decision on precisely the right things: Soviet restraint in the relevant categories of military action - not on some tangentially "linked" Soviet enterprise. And he has publicly committed the U.S. governmnt to go forward with needed modernization of the affected weapons whether the ends result will be neutron warheads and shells or not. This is as it should be. The question of whether or not the United States should proceed with production of neutron weapons and whether the NATO countries should accept them was - and remains - a legitimate and dead serious public issue. But there was something skewed, even grotesque, in the way the thing had come to be perceived as a question of whether or not the United States would embark on some villainous, Strange-lovian enterprise likely to introduce a new element of horror into the East-West military balance.
In saying we think Mr. Carter has come out at the right place "for the moment," we mean to suggest that the wisdom and merit of his decision can only be proved out in the months ahead. The point is that, if this exercise in bargaining is to have the right effect, the position Mr. Carter now takes must be plausible and real: It will have to be indicated to the Russians that he is not just sitting by his telephone waiting for an overture or a vague promise to talk about talking to use as an excuse for decidding against production. It will have to be demonstrable that the neutron option is one he will only pick up or forgo for clear and practical reasons of military defense. It will have to be demonstrable, in other words, that Mr. Carter is absolutely serious about and and committed to the position he tood on Friday.
We are bound to say that is likely to be somewhat easier now that he has a rather clearer signal from the key NATO countries than he did before the recent flap. And to some extent Mr. Carter's own apparent backing and filling on the issue could be explained by the spot those NATO countries had put him in - wishing the United States not just to take the lead on neutron weapons, but also to take all the political heat. Events of the past week or so have at least got the Germans and some others to record publicly their private positions on the question. In fact, the politics of the neutron decision, especially in Western Europe, are almost as complicated as the chemistry and physics involved. And there is, both here and abroad, a certain amount of political (or "image") damage for Mr. Carter to try to undo in relation to what went before. But we think the President, who has made plain both his keen desire to turn down the nuclear-weapons competition and (now) his unwillingness to do so unilaterally in the face of a Soviet weapons build-up, has made a good start.