Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told NATO's ministers today that the United States has raised the long-dormant issue of civil-defense planning with Soviet officials, informed sources report.
Vance reportedly told the ministers that there would be an exchange of position papers betwen Washington and Moscow on the subject that might lead to eventual agreements.
Vance's comments came behind closed doors during the final session of a two-day meeting here of foreign ministers from 15 NATO countries.
Although Vance's remarks reportedly were brief, they represented one of the rare times in many years in which the subject of preparations for wartime civil defense has drawn any comment at all at the foreign civil defense has drawn any comment at all at the foreign minister level.
He said the question was raised by a U.S. delegation that went to Moscow last March to discuss nuclear arms limitations.
Vance's comments also reflect new interest in two questions: whether reported plans by the Soviets to evacuate cities and stockpile foodstuffs against possible wartime emergencies actually is a factor in measuring the East-West balance of power; and, if it is, whether agreements can be negotiated so that it is not a destablizing factor.
The issue is whether a country that feels confident it can protect its population better has an edge over countries whose populations are far more vulnerable to attack.
At the close of todays meeting, NATO Secretary General Joseph Luns, without mentioning Vance's remarks told reporters that the subject had been discussed, that the foreign ministers had expressed concern for the more than 500 million people living in NATO counties, and that civil-defense planning would be one of NATO's major new projects in light of Soviet efforts.
Other sources, said however, that Vance was the only minister who spoke on the subject today and that the United States and, to a lesser extent, West Germany are the only countries showing any sign of interest in taking a hard new look at civil defense.
In a prosperous West and an age of generally relaxed superpower relations, the prospect of war seems extremely remote and there is little interest in "building bombshelters like in the 1960," one official said.
The United States, however requested an increase in this year's budget for civil defense a step some officials fore as a possible bargaining chip to try to get the Soviets to agree to a treaty, similar to the one on the anti-ballistic missile, in which both sides would refrain from doing something both costly and potentially unnerving.
There still is considerable uncertainty within NATO about just ho big the Soviet civil-defense program is. There is not dispute that it is much larger than any in the West, where there are virtually no programs.
The Soviets have published instructions on evacuation routes, they teach civil defense in schools and they traditionally disperse manufacturing facilities. There is debate, however, about how much has been stockpiled or how many underground facilities have been built.
NATO's new efforts are aimed at better planning. The regular NATO document, "Guidance for Civil Emergency planning," is turned out periodically but sections on preparedness of each country are written by that country and it is viewed as having limited effectiveness.