RONALD REAGAN may well go down as the president who tried to stop putting cannons in the village square where they would draw fire down on the people in a war.
His blueprint for strengthening our nuclear strategic forces definitely points the nation in this direction, even though neither he nor his critics are making a point of it.
Consider how light Reagan went on putting new nuclear missiles on the United States land mass where the people live; how heavy he went on putting them in the air and under the sea:
He refused to spread 200 MX missiles around Nevada and Utah; decided to yank the old Titan missiles out of their silos in three other states; resisted making any commitment to deploy on land all the new MX missiles that are to be produced.
He called at the same time for rebuilding the nation's bomber fleet, with the 100 quick- takeoff 100 B1s only the beginning; basing more nuclear fire power under the sea in missile and attack submarines; strengthening the defense of the continent.
This deemphasis on land-based missiles could merely be a case of the top pol responding to the pleas of his brethren not to put the damn nukes in their states. Or it could be the new president's reasoned judgment that there is no way to make land missiles invulnerable to Soviet attack in this age of pickle-barrel accuracy for nuclear warheads.
Either way, Reagan's six-year nuclear blueprint is a highly significant representation of the leader of the Free World responding to the art of the possible when it comes to making the recommendations of how and where to deploy those weapons that could destroy almost every living thing on earth.
Perhaps Reagan had no choice. For recent history strongly suggests that American and European citizens will no longer let the generals and admirals decide what is good for them when it comes to deploying nuclear weapons on their home ground, no matter how loud their leaders shout that "the Russians are coming."
Recall, first, how influential public protests have been in our own country -- North, South, East and West. No to the anti-ballistic-missile defense, with part of the rebellion from the people in Massachusetts who were living near the site. No to the 4,000-mile radio grid the Navy wanted to bury in the forests of northern Wisconsin. Public pressure shrunk it from Sanguine, to Seafarer, to ELF, to the mini-ELF of a mere 84 miles which Reagan proposed for Wisconsin and Michigan last week. No to the MX in Nevada and Utah. And maybe no to Reagan's idea of stuffing the blockbuster in vacated Titan holes in Arizona, Arkansas and Kansas.
The American people, it seems, have lived so long with the Soviet nuclear gun held to their temple that they either don't believe it will go off or figure there is nothing they can do about if it does. Why should it be so surprising that a growing number of West Europeans feel the same way? They don't want the little brothers of MX -- nuclear-tipped Pershing and cruise missiles -- on their soil any more than Americans want the Big Daddy on theirs.
Whether this gut feeling is good or bad, right or wrong, is hardly worth arguing about. The fact is that it is there, on both sides of the Atlantic, to the consternation of most of the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The people seem to be saying in dozens of different ways and languages: "All right. So the Russians are coming. Quit asking us to put up lightning rods to draw their terrible lightning into our homes where it will kill us dead."
Could it be that Reagan, underrated for decades as a domestic politician, is way ahead of his liberal predecessors as an international politician and is responding to what down deep he senses is a sea change in public attitudes toward accepting nuclear weapons around home? Is he saying, "Find a publicly acceptable place to deploy new nuclear weapons, whether the generals and admirals like it or not?" Someone must have told him that installing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles under the sea in attack submarines would give Europeans yet another powerful argument against accepting the same kind of weapons on their own soil. But Reagan is recommending this anyway.
He also pledged in unveiling his strategic plan to keep looking for other ways to push more of the U.S. nuclear firepower off the land, or at least farther away for the population centers. Deploying the MX on giant airplanes or inside the solid rocks of buttes in the sparsely populated West are two options Reagan has promised to keep studying before deciding in 1984 what to do with the bulk of the 100 MX missiles he wants to buy. He even seems to be sliding away from any firm commitment to put 36 missiles in Titan silos, to the relief of many politicians in the Titan states.
All this argumentation would be more convincing if Reagan himself would come right out and say he wants to take nuclear firepower off the land as he diversifies the offense in the future. But this would cost him what he regards as "bargaining chip" leverage when and if his representatives sit down with the Russians to negotiate mutual cuts in their nuclear arsenals. The more bluster about our new superweapons between now and then the better. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger all last week gushed about how much more lethal the MX in Titan holes would make the U.S. land offense -- at least for a couple of years until increasingly accurate warheads doom any missile standing still in the ground. So don't expect to hear administration officials talking anytime soon about the wisdom of keeping the new cannons out of the village square. However, some other respected voices are already saying it.
"We should make every effort to get them (new land missiles) off American soil," said retired Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor. "Leave what we've got, but not put some more in. I have never felt that an honest, thorough examination has been made of the SUM" -- the idea of putting land missiles to sea in small submarines that would ply American coastal waters.
Taylor, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and presidential adviser, also attacked the "triad" which some military leaders consider inviolate. It is the expression for maintaining a triple-threat nuclear offense of land missiles, bombers and submarines. "I would throw the idea of a triad out," Taylor said in discussing Reagan's strategic program over Cable News Network last Sunday. "It's a shibboleth. It's a sacred cow of the Pentagon. The important thing is how many kinds of weapons can you use which will require different counterdefenses on the part of the enemy. And in the future we'll have submarines; we'll have cruise missiles on aircraft and on submarines; we'll have bombers that can be used as bombers. So that even without the land-based missiles, we have a variety -- which is highly desireable.''
Another veteran strategist, retired Rear Adm. George H. Miller, said: "I've been warning since the 1950s: 'Don't set up the artillery in the village square. Keep the fighting off our shores.' President Reagan's new strategic program at least holds promise that this proposition will finally be debated out in the open, not just in the bowels of the Pentagon."
There is fresh danger as well as fresh promise inherent in Reagan's new blueprint. One is that the frustration in Washington and Moscow over finding a way to protect land missiles against surprise attack will lead to policies to fire off these nuclear monsters when radar screens indicate warheads are on the way. The glitches of the past in the U.S. warning net provide little assurance that a nuclear holocaust would not be triggered by a false alarm if "launch on warning" becomes national policy in either the United States or the Soviet Union.
A second danger is the fascination the new team at the Pentagon is exhibiting toward exotic, far-out weapons -- such as putting lasers in space for zapping incoming warheads; dusting off the old idea of orbiting a nuclear bomb, even though there is a treaty forbidding this; and gearing up to seize the high ground of space in a war by perfecting new generations of satellite killers. Moving nuclear confrontation up to space in a big way would add a fourth dimension to the already horrendous problem of finding ways to keep the superpowers from blowing up themselves and much of the rest of the world.