All right, now, the last time you looked in on this strategic nuclear stuff a few years ago there were two crowds who didn't get along -- right?

There were the "assured destruction" people, who talked a lot about blowing up Russian cities. And it was a little hard to remember that they were the doves, but they said that they were because they only wanted to deter war. They argued that it could cause instability in a crisis, and an arms race, if we targeted Soviet nuclear forces with our nuclear weapons. The same was true, they said, if we deployed anything that was designed to make the Soviet deterrent ineffective -- such as big accurate ICBMs to shoot at it before it was launched, or city-defending ABMs to shoot it down when it got here, or even a civil defense program to make it less devastating if it landed.

A far-out wing, the minimum assured destroyers, seemed to be saying that even if we just had a reasonable chance of detonating a few nuclear weapons over some Russian cities that was enough -- that it didn't matter how badly we were outclassed. Some of them also seemed to have great confidence that they could teach the Soviets to think like them -- to make assured destruction theory "mutual."

Then there was the other group. They didn't have a good name for themselves, but since they tended to think our nuclear weapons ought to be primarily designed to destroy Russian military forces, including nuclear weapons, "counterforce advocates" is as good a name as any. They said that it wasn't effective to have a deterrent that was designed just to murder civilians and that nobody thought you'd ever really use, even in extremis. All they were trying to do, they argued, was have a more believable deterrent. This group had an extreme wing, too -- mainly a few people mesmerized by the idea of have a nationwide city-defending ABM system.

It struck you that these two gangs seemed to love to fuss with one another, and that each side seemed only to want to argue with the extreme wing of the other side. This made it both more confusing and less interesting than baseball and that was when you switched them all off and turned on the game, remember?

Now here they all are again, clamoring for attention and interfering with your figuring out when the Orioles will catch the Yankees. There's a new presidential directive, PD59, that orders increased targeting of Soviet military forces by our nuclear weapons. Some of the assured destroyers are in full cry that Carter has been led into tragic Strangelovian paths by Brown and Brzezinski. The counterforce advocates are walking a fine line -- crowing about a major victory over the assured destroyers, but trying not to give Carter any credit (most of the counterforce advocates like Reagan better).

Do you need to turn off the ball game and notice them? No, not yet. You can give it a few more innings.

Just to get you caught up, though, the main thing that's happened since you last noticed this strategic gingham dog and calico cat fight is that the Soviets have been building lots of missiles, among other things. they didn't stop the way many of the assured destroyers said they would. The Soviets have also started writing and talking about actually being able to win a nuclear war. This has confused and confounded particularly the extreme wing of the assured destroyers. The latter have, in effect, been told by the Soviets, "As far as mutual assured destruction goes, you take care of the mutuality -- we'll take care of the destruction."

Now here comes the tricky part. This Soviet behavior has persuaded a number of the less extreme assured destroyers to become, to some degree, counterforce advocates. In effect, these partial converts are now saying that deterrence is still the main thing, but the Soviets are getting pushy, so we probably have to threaten their military forces more in order to deter them better.

In 1974, then-secretary of defense James Schlesinger made an important initial effort to try to attract some of the assured destroyers over into the counterforce advocate camp. He tried not only to expand the relatively limited options then available to the president for retargeting nuclear weapons in a crisis and witholding strikes on major Soviet cities but also to explain why this was important.

Explanation turned out to be a bad idea. He was attacked savagely by some of the assured destroyers, who either didn't know that some such options already existed and that Soviet military forces have always been a major target for our own nuclear weapons, or who didn't care and thought baiting Schlesinger was good politics. Nonetheless, he got started. Futher improvements in data processing and communications turned out to be needed, and Brown has been sensibly and vigorously pursuing these. PD59 is the result. In short, the counterforce advocates have been winning the targeting debate, such as it was, for some time. PD59 is just some new evidence of that.

A second set of perennial arguments has concerned whether to add new weapon systems that would add to our ability to attack Soviet nuclear forces. The assured destroyers and the counterforce advocates used to squabble all the time about this, but the counterforce advocates have now largely won this argument, too, greatly assisted by the Soviet's behavior. Have you noticed that most of the arguments against the MX missile are about the environment, or the cost or whether mobile missiles can be effectively counted and hence limited under arms control agreements? The assured destroyers have said much less about not threatening the Soviet deterrent than you would have heard a decade ago. Victory No. 2 for counterforce.

But the big strategic theory bout is still coming. It's going to be about our old friend ABM. The ABM flails of 1969 and 1970 were fundamental -- if highly confused -- strategic debates in a way that the current targeting flap and debates over offensive systems are not. This was because the extreme counterforce advocates' ideal system, a city-defending ABM, if it should work, holds a promise of canceling the effect of all the other side's ballistic missiles -- not just threatening a portion of them. The original Sentinel ABM, Safeguard's daddy, seemed headed this way.

But an ABM system to defend our strategic missiles -- as Safeguard tried to become during the two-year debate -- doesn't raise that problem, if it can really be limited to ICBM defense. The "really" in that last sentence presents the key issue. In 1969-70 this question -- is ICBM defense just a first step toward city defense? -- gave rise to a terribly angry debate. We will probably have one again between now and 1982, when the ABM treaty comes up for review. Many who are increasingly worried about the Soviet threat to our deterrent will be friendlier toward ABM defense of our ICBMs than they were in 1969-70. This may include some of the less extreme assured destroyers, who will now be sufficiently concerned that they will be less sensitive about ABMs that defend missiles being a first step toward ABMs that defend cities than they were 10 years ago. Many assured destroyers have come around on targeting and on the MX; why not on ABMs? They may and they may not. It will be a multi-sided fight for their, and your, allegiance.