In the debate over the needs of our strategic forces, one controversial point is always in the foreground -- or background -- of the discussion: do we have forces capable of deterring the Soviets from initiating nuclear war? From the Eisenhower through the Johnson administrations, there was little doubt either as to the credibility or the indispensabiliby of their deterrent effectiveness. It was credible because our forces were clearly able to destroy the Soviet Union as a viable nation. It was indispensable because, after the Soviets had acquired intercontinental missiles, it was generally accepted that strategic war would be mutually suicidal and that no defensive means, passive or active, existed that could make it less so.

Not only were defensive measures viewed as futile, but damage control was equally unpromising. One could never hope to foresee where and how to stockpile reserves of food, water, medicines, hospital beds, firefighting equipment and the like needed to deal simultaneously with hundreds of regional disasters. Even if there were warning of attack, how to relocate senior government officials without closing down government itself, how to evacuate urban populations without creating nationwide nationwide panic, and how to disperse industry at a whime when all communications might be blotted out by nuclear explosions? And after the attack, how to put out fires, restore order and keep survivors alive while disposing of millions of dead?

Unable to answer such questions, most of my contemporaries concluded, as I did and do, that there is no conceivable way of hedging adequately against a failure of deterrence. We are not dealing with war in any rational, Clausewitzian sense -- the use of military force as another means for a government to achieve political ends beneficial to the nation. In any major strategic exchange, the reciprocal damage would create conditions that would make victory and defeat virtually indistinguishable, save perhaps that the victors might survive a bit longer than the vanquished.

In recent years, there has been a progressive loss of faith in this doctrine, now derisively dubbed MAD (mutual assured destruction) by its critics. There is fairly broad acceptance of the possibility of a limited strategic attack concentrated on a limited target such as out silo-based ICBMs, a contingency used to justify the need for the new MX missile.

It is also widely asserted that deterrence is a dubious goal for our strategic forces because Soviet military writers never mention the word in discussing strategic doctrine. They make no sharp distinction between conventional and nuclear warfare as we do, and seem to expect to use both nuclear and conventional weapons in any combination as needed anywhere from the battle front to the heartland of the enemy. By using such blended military means, although expecting heavy losses, they seemingly anticipate ultimate victory pretty much as it was won against Germany in World War II.

The apparent existence of such a was-fighting concept among Soviet leaders has convinced a considerable number of American experts on the subject that our own strategic forces are grossly inadequate to deter an enemy instilled with such a doctrine. They urge a drastic increase in our strategic forces to reinforce their visible strength and call for measures similar to the Soviets' for hedging against the failure of deterrence and fighting a nuclear war to a finish.

I am unconvinced by these arguments -- in fact, I firmly believe that it should be easier for us to deter the Soviets from initiating nuclear was than it would be for them to deter us.

In the first place, the Soviets have superior conventional forces in close proximity to virtually all of their national interests that may require defense. Thus they would have no reason to resort to nuclear weapons for their protection.

Second, from their World War II experience, their leaders know how devastating conventional war can be. They also know nuclear war would be many times more so -- that they would lose in a few hours more than they lost in four years fighting the Germans.

Third, they could not afford to fight or even "win" a strategic was with the United States. In doing so, their losses would so paralyze the nation as to make it easy prey to nearby enemies -- wolves ready to take advantage of a stricken bear. Such enemies could include Chinese, Afghans, Turks, Germans, and Poles beyond Soviet borders, and non-Russian minorities within.

Finally, the past record of the Kremlin leaders indicates an extreme reluctance to run unnecessary risks, particularly if there is a safer way to gain the desired end. In this case they have such an alternative -- to ride the tide of the present favorable correlation of forces, increasing its momentum when possible and exploiting every opportunity to further weaken the United States and its allies. This moderate course would not only promise gain at minimum risk. It also would allow crediting the ultimate victory to the fulfillment of the Marxist-Leninist prophecy of the inevitable collapse of c apitalism from its internal weaknesses and contradictions. It would be an ideological triumph of considerable worth.

If the foregoing reasoning is sound, the probability of a deliberate Soviet attack is extremely low and the possibility of effecting enduring deterrence very high. But even so, we should never cease our efforts to improve the quality and survivability of our forces, particularly their command and communications systems, and thus assure continued maximization of their deterrent potential. The size and numbers of their weapons would be determined not by what the Russians have, but by the weapons needed to destroy enough targets causing Soviet losses equal to or exceeding those of World War II.

With an arsenal of such lethality to assure deterrence, it would be folly to race the Soviets further in numbers of weapons or to waste the finite resources available for national defense in profligate hedging against the failure of deterrence. We can apply the savings to far better purpose in strengthening the conventional forces necessary to defend our essential interests overseas, currently beyond the supporting range of our military power.