Don't be surprised if the enduring political legacy of Chernobyl turns out to be, especially among up-scale baby boomers, a new political activism that presses strenuously for a nuclear test-ban with the Soviets. After the disaster, the issue is not nuclear power; it is nuclear peace. If one little plant can cause this much tragedy and fear, people ask, what would a bomb do? American voters, according to pollsters who are interviewing them, are again expressing concern about war and peace after Chernobyl.
For many of the upscale baby-boomers, Chernobyl could lead to two relevant discoveries: 1) sometimes government is not only important, but truly indispensable; 2) affluence and influence have long gone steady in American politics.
To be rich in America has usually meant being able to avoid many of the governmental failures that have afflicted the nonrich. For example, if government fails and the local public schools are a disaster area, that may be a tragedy for nonrich people who have to send their kids to those public schools, but not necessarily for the rich who can "buy" private school education for their own kids. The same separate and unequal standard applies to a government's failure to maintain public safety or personal security. If you're rich enough, you can purchase your own rent-a-cop police force and a computerized burglar alarm system too.
In addition to their options, the affluent generally have political influence. For a couple of generations, drugs infected unchic, urban precincts dismembering families and demolishing hope. But it wasn't until the dealers expanded their distribution system to our affluent neighborhoods that drugs became an epidemic and a National Issue. The same pattern operated during the Vietnam war: a national policy that was "mistaken" when our casualties were the sons of urban America, quickly became, when the draft-calls began to arrive at better addresses in nicer neighborhoods, a Moral Outrage against which to march and campaign. The affluent, especially those who contribute to campaigns, have influence.
In post-Chernobyl politics in the United States, both these axioms could combine to produce a new political reality. Unlike a BMW or an all-natural-fiber outfit, peace cannot be privately purchased. No entrepreneur is about to franchise nuclear disarmament. Governments and politicians have to be the peace-makers. That means political involvement.
This new reality includes the fearsome knowledge that the deadly poisons of any nuclear exchange would be carried by gentle breeze and rolling river, by soil and seed, to the farthest corners of the globe. There would be no "private" air to be bought when the "public" air was destroyed, no rent-an-environment. Once that poison entered the mountain stream and the jet-stream, it would be no respecter of ZIP codes or zoning ordinances, to say nothing of national borders. It could even show up, uninvited, on New Year's Eve in Palm Springs at the Annenbergs.
Those who will lead this peace offensive will have an affirmative obligation to support a workable on-site verification plan and to acknowledge the legitimate doubts their fellow citizens have about the Soviets, caused by Soviet brutality. But it could well happen that, in the post-Reagan era we are now entering, American political leaders will once again oppose the dangerous defeatism about the impracticality of peace. Possibly one will dare to remind us that, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet.