Not much about Europe's temper can be inferred from evidence about Oxford's temper, but the Oxford Union (a debating society) vote against pacifism is, if not portentous, at least instructive. The emphatic (416 to 187) rejection of the motion that "this House would not fight for Queen and country" came exactly 50 years after a similar "King and country" resolution passed.

The 1933 vote was a referendum on the Great War, in which the futility of the tactics -- fighting machine guns with young men's chests -- matched the absurdity of the motionless slaughter: when Germany surrendered in 1918 there were no foreign soldiers on German soil. Oxford undergraduates had been junior officers, a very brief vocation. Understandably, postwar Oxford was receptive to pacifism.

Today, as the most recent Union debate showed, pacifism has no such dignifying explanation. It is inseparable from anti-Americanism, and the postulation of a moral symmetry between American and Soviet motives. Furthermore, it rests on the belief that physical survival is a value superior to any other.

The day after the recent Union debate, the governing body of the Church of England rejected (338 to 110) a resolution endorsing unilateral nuclear disarmament for Britain. The Archbishop of Canterbury cited the "moral inconsistency" of Britain's opting out of the risk involved in a deterrent system from which Britain would continue to benefit.Well, yes. But that argument is terribly limp compared with the editorial words of the Salisbury Review, a new British journal of conservative thought:

"Just as the Church has traditionally taught that war has moral limits, so it should now be teaching that there are moral limits to peace. Otherwise, presumably, any humiliation may be tolerated. A desire for world peace should not be allowed to dissolve all other moral commitments in our society.... the Greek word for peace in the New Testament is more correctly translated as an equilibrium based on justice. Any Western society, therefore, that were to accept the 'better red than dead' argument would necessarily be abnegating its legitimacy."

If only the churches could speak as clearly. America's Catholic bishops, in a draft pastoral letter, have offered this pretzel-like twist of logic: possession of nuclear weapons is tolerable only if rendered pointless by disavowing any declared intent to use them. The pope, who thinks otherwise, should urge the bishops to think more spaciously, avoiding the constricted focus on two sets of weapons. Such a focus gives rise to an unthought assumption of moral symmetry between the two regimes.

There seems to be reluctance to inject the great themes of political argument -- such as justice and legitimacy -- into the argument about defense policy, because that would require unblinking scrutiny of the Soviet regime we are deterring. And that would make such groups as Germany's Green party seem less winsome.

The Greens' pacifism is in part distinctively contemporary, and in part recalls cultural fermentations of 50 years ago. Jane Kramer of The New Yorker explains the "expiatory" and "redemptive" -- the religious terms are apt -- fervor of Germany's pacifists: "They have no history to attach to with any pride, and it is intoxicating for them now to think of themselves as victims of a madness other than their own."

In "The Long Weekend," a social history of Britain between the wars, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge titled a chapter "Pacifism, Nudism, Hiking." All three were forms of this century's characteristic groping for secular faiths. Today, socialism having lost its luster, the groping finds expression in disarmanent. Again.

In November 1932, the once and future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, told the House of Commons that the new superweapon -- the airplane -- had invalidated traditional moral reasoning about war ("The bomber will always get through") and he urged on young Britons the pacifism that found expression in the Union resolution three months later. He said that the world's youth would be to blame if they allowed old men to make war:

"When the next war comes... do not let them [youth] lay blame on the old men. Let them remember that they, they principally or they alone, are responsible for all the terrors that have fallen upon the earth."

Wrong. The truth was more banal, and more germane to today's controversies. When war came the blame came, rightly, to those in authority who had not maintained the balance of power. They had rationalized their dereliction of duty by sentimentalizing youth, and by judging intellectual movements by the most benign motives behind them rather than their probable consequences