THEY HAVE BEEN thinking the unthinkable again in certain quarters of government, and the question now is whether they are also going to try to do the non-doable. Some time in the next few days, the president is expected to decide just how much money he will ask from Congress for a stepped-up program of civil defense. Around $95 million annually has already been dished out for this confused and wasteful program; and only recently has the government arranged to free up those funds for expenditure on more manageable and familiar, if less exotic, emergencies than those likely to attend nuclear war. Now there are pressures on Mr. Carter to add substantially to these funds for the purpose of getting a civil-defense evacuation project under way. The current scuttlebutt has it that he is resisting. We fervently hope this is the case.

Since the advent of nuclear explosives and of missiles that can hurl them halfway around the world in a matter of minutes, the subject of civil defense has been transformed, although some of the advocates of an enlarged American program do not acknowledge that fact. When you talk of protecting civilian polulations and industrial plants against destruction in nuclear war, you must be talking either of a gigantic and gigantically expensive burrowing and dispersal process-or of nothing. The much written-and worried-about Soviet civil-defense efforts, for example, that are regularly cited as evidence that the Russians are developing a decisive advantage over us for any future nuclear confrontation, could all be confounded or overcome by various adjustments of a nuclear offense. And the literature that holds otherwise, spinning out its clinical we-do-this-then-they-do-that scenarios is just that: literature-tidy imaginings of how the thing might go on paper, but surely not in bloody, rubble-strewn, irradiated, wires-down and switchboards-out reality.

All right, the unconvinced reply, but what's wrong with trying to do what we can-that which is at least feasible-by way of protecting what we reasonably can from possible obliteration? The answer is that except for a few really rock-bottom, minimal steps, there is just no civil defense possible that, in practical terms, would not require ever greater and greater expenditures and exertions and distortions of the peacetime civilian life we live to have any prospect of war-worthiness at all. And even then, it couldn't work, and would thus constitute a cruelly deceptive promise of substantially cutting down civilian casualties. Where is it exactly that all those Soviet citizens are meant to be trudging to for the several days it is expected to take them to evacuate their cities? What exactly is it that they are going to build to shelter themselves in when they get there? And with what materials? Who will be carrying the food and water and from where-and over what kind of terrain and clogged (with people and vehicles) roads? What we should be telling the Soviets, again and again and in every way we know, is that it's rotten enterprise and can't be expected to work-not: Hey, you seem to have a terrific idea there; but you can't get the better of us; we're going to do it too.

If anything, the Osviet pursuit of a civil-defense program has illustrated precisely one of the dangers that go with it: digging in (no matter how ineffective) or even seeming to, will never look defensive to the other side; rather, to those charged with protecting a nation's security it will always project the image of an enemy preparing to fight a war. Thus, it is likely to alarm and provoke an opponent; and it may also generate a false and dangerous sense of confidence, bordering on arrogance, on the part of those who construct some kind of civil-defense capability. You can see some of the psychological harm in the very reaction of this country to the Soviet's activities in the field. But that at least is in a relatively tension-free, long-term planning context. Only consider what the impact would be on a different time and danger scale-at a moment of high-tension during a superpower confrontation that engaged each country's vital interests-if one side or the other started evacuating its cities. Do you think the evacuees would get very far? How would you assess the contribution of their mass exodus to the triggering of actual warfare?

It is occasionally said that those who oppose the development of a civil-defense capacity in this country are arrogant themselves and unfeeeling, in that they seem eager to will total doom in a nuclear exchange and evince no concern for the millions of lives that might be saved by some prudent advance-planning Baloney. If there is arrogance afoot, it is the cosmic, Faustian arrogance of those who believe that nuclear warfare can be tamed and made manageable, who intellectualize and make antisceptic the "scenarios" of what it would be like and who now suggest to the rest of us that it will be our own fault if we end up casualties. Never mind that all this is dressed up in humanitarian, let-us-save-what-we-can garb. Embarking on a civil-defense program in a nuclear-missile age is one of the worst ideas ever tossed into public discussion. The president should toss it out.