A FEW HUNDRED stragglers from the Great Peace March are wandering through the Mojave Desert. They were to have been part of a mighty host of 5,000 that was to walk across the country, gathering adherents as they went and striding into Washington this fall demanding the elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.
The tattered remnant, begging alms as it goes, seems as good a metaphor for peace prospects as can be found in this sixth springtime of the reign of Ronald Reagan.
Four years ago this time, the country was on fire to end the arms race. The nuclear freeze movement was a wave promising to engulf the cold warrior in the White House. But the president fought back. He assailed the naivete of those who would freeze Soviet superiority. He finally smothered the freeze with Star Wars, a trillion dollar, high-tech umbrella for the good guys.
The Great Peace March, the dream of anti-Vietnam activist David Mixner, was a casualty of bad planning, insufficient insurance and sniping from other peace groups that claimed Mixner wanted to be the whole cheese. What ultimately did it in, probably, was public apathy.
Mixner was focusing on tents and water supplies and camping permits. What took the life out of the project, though, was the indifference of the country, which has a short, although intense, attention span on matters relating to the future of the planet, nuclear holocaust and other melancholy considerations.
The president, having soothed the masses by going to Geneva (though refusing to discuss arms control), is now reassuring his right-wing hard-core that they need not fear any serious consequences to the arms buildup from his fireside encounters with Mikhail Gorbachev.
The evidence is that Reagan, having reluctantly abandoned his "evil empire" rhetoric, is prowling the globe in search of opportunities for the Soviets to make his day. We had this week's successful baiting of the odious Qaddafi, who obligingly fired on our ships and got a faceful of missiles in return. Qaddafi also acquired the martyr's crown in the Arab world, but that is not the kind of nuance that troubles the combative leader of the western world. The "line of death" drawn by a Soviet client has been successfully breached.
In Nicaragua, the president has shown a new militancy and inflated a border raid into a full-scale invasion of Honduras.
The hype generated a little balkiness in the usually supine Senate, but it advanced the cause of the hot war in Central America. Honduras, which has been trying to stay out of it, was drawn in for $20 million in "emergency aid" and U.S. helicopter pilots began flying Honduran troops to points near the border to repel the intruders.
In direct encounters with the Soviets, the president has been displaying vindictiveness and contempt. He opened with a demand that l00 Soviets be kicked out of the United Nations mission. He coupled it with new charges of Soviet violation of existing arms treaties. He compounded it with a flat rejection of the Soviet proposal for negotiations on a comprehensive test-ban treaty.
To make sure that nobody missed the point, Reagan responded to a new Soviet call for a test ban -- one which the Soviets have observed unilaterally since last August -- by inviting them to a nuclear test in Nevada. It was like asking someone who wants to ban capital punishment to come to an execution. The Soviets declined.
Nobody in the administration is arguing for the president to comply with the SALT II provision that would require the dismantling of two of our Poseidon nuclear submarines in May. Richard Perle, the Pentagon watchdog who guards against any arms accords, says that since the Soviets are cheating, we should make "proportionate departures" from previous agreements.
Apparently, we will wiggle out by drydocking the subs.
The Easter message from the White House is that Reagan has the Soviets right where he wants them -- on the run. Gorbachev hints that he will not come to the U.S., as promised in Geneva, unless he has some arms control progress to talk about. Perle sees this as another "treaty violation," since, he points out, Gorbachev signed a communique promising unconditionally to come.
It's ideal for Reagan. He can say he is willing to talk and that Gorbachev is reneging.
The single forward development in the Reagan years was accomplished against his will. The House has passed legislation to ban tests of anti-satellite weapons. Reagan objected strenuously. It imperils Star Wars, which incidentally, 63 per cent of American scientists polled by Peter Hart say is "dangerously unreliable."
Those folks in the desert may not know where they are going or how to get there. But they sure know how bad things are in this era of "peace through strength."