Are you ready for the doctors' nuclear cure? A group of them, with a Harvard-MIT nucleus, have organized as International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War to make the rest of us think harder about whay they see as an unthinking global drift toward sure catastrophe.
Their special credential is medical expertise. With it they hope to rebut what is undeniably a growing tendency among strategists and politicians, in Washington as well as Moscow, to regard nuclear war as thinkable even if it were to escalate beyond the bounds of "limited" and "tactical," as being horrible but not paralyzingly horrible, as something that a well-prepared nation could adequately survive, as a contest that could be winnable in some meaningful way.
Not so, say the doctors.At a conference last weekend at Airlie House, they produced their own sobering counts of likely casualties and effects on public health in order to challenge those who argue, from their generally much lower numbers, that nuclear war is not so much different from conventional war after all.
The doctors will no doubt be accused of inflating their numbers to match their nuclear anxiety, but those on the other side can be similarly suspected of deflating their numbers to justify their own strategic alarms. It is a worthy and necessary argument. The people responsible for the world's nuclear balance should not be allowed to build forces and draw war plans without factoring in the best available calculations of what the toll might be.
Having given this much, however, I must add that is some respects the doctors are going about their program in a disconcerting way.
They should never have accepted Soviet doctors as "non-political" soul mates. This invites all of the shameless fraud of which Soviets are capable. At Airlie, their delegates cooed and encouraged Western doctors to become, in effect, a lobby for unilateral Western disarmament. There is no Soviet public opinion that can help make the Kremlin responsive to the doctors' evenhanded appeals.
Let us have no more of this nonsense about physicians' dedicating themselves to life without regard to national boundaries. If the group wishes to be taken seriously, let it throw the Soviets out. It was especially revolting to see a Soviet psychiatrist on the program, Soviet psychiatry being an instrument of unspeakable political repression.
But this is not all that is incumbent upon International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. It could do a service by acknowledging that its program is essentially an assault on the strategic premises of the Reagan administration, and by showing where those premises go wrong.
The administration's basic concept was summed up by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. when he said that everyone must understand there are some things we would fight for. To the nuclear-nervous, such an assertion leads all too automatically to a combative policy increasing the chance of war.
To Haig, however, it appears to mean just the opposite: To the extent that doubt about a possible strong American reaction is diminished, a hostile power will be less inclined to test the limits of American forbearance. This flows from the judgment that the principal danger of war arises not from the "arms race" or from the supposedly destabilizing nature of particular weapons or from the prospect of accident, but from political miscalculation.
There is much to this formulation. It does not solve every question, particularly the question of this administration's judgment. But it makes sense to me that a clear statement of American intent to protect American interests can reduce the miscalculation that might produce war. The risks of nuclear war are considerable, and there is surely room for more than one way to perceive them. But this is one good way.
In brief, there is a bargain to be struck. If the doctors wish to gain a hearing for their view of the perils of current official thinking about nuclear war, they must grant a hearing to the administration's more sober strategic rationales. The bane of strategic debate for years has been the contempt that "liberals" and "conservatives" have shown for each other's views. The argument should not be allowed to degenerate into charges of "nuclear machismo" on one side and "better red than dead" on the other.