We are going to be bombarded with oratory, rhetoric, facts and figures about nuclear weapons and nuclear war. The campaign has already started, and will get worse as the weather improves. One issue is whether to freeze all nuclear weapons, then reduce. The anti-freeze group, which now includes the president, argues that a freeze gives up critical leverage that will force the Soviets to negotiate, so it proposes that we build up, then reduce and then freeze. Both sides seem casually to accept the proposition that the risk of war is related to the sheer number of nuclear weapons and the risk could be significantly lessened if the numbers were frozen or reduced.

Wars rarely, if ever, have started because of an excess of arms. The notion that they have is a residue of the 1920s, when it was widely and erroneously believed that the Great War of 1914 had originated in the heavy armaments of the two coalitions. No historian believes this. Britain entered that war for geopolitical reasons, when the Germans marched into Belgium and brought German power to the channel ports. Twenty-five years later, a poorly armed Great Britain went to war because it would no longer tolerate the expansion of Hitler's domain. Nuclear weapons are, of course, radicallly different. But nothing in our postwar history suggests that the East-West confrontations and crises have grown in proportion to the size of nuclear arsenals. Two extremely dangerous crises erupted when the U.S.S.R. had no nuclear weapons or only a very few: the Berlin blockade of 1948 and the Korean War in 1950. Khrushchev started another massive Berlin crisis in 1958 on the strength of a missile gap bluff. Later, a dangerous confrontation took place in Cuba when the U.S.S.R. had a handful of ICBMs and the United States had only about 200. In fact, since that great crisis 20 years ago, conflicts between Moscow and Washington have multiplied, and nuclear arsenals have grown, but with fewer and fewer confrontations.

Defenders of a freeze argue that we have 9,000 strategic warheads and the Soviets 7,000 and that is enough. Maybe so. The danger arises, however, because of threats created by certain categories of strategic nuclear weapons, not because of the total number. To freeze all weapons is tantamount to saying that a short-range missile in Germany is of the same weight and value as a soviet ICBM. Freezing also invites a horde of questions: can old weapons be replaced with new ones? Can a short-range weapon be substituted for long-range ones? With patience, these questions could be negotiated.

The anti-freeze alternative of a U.S. buildup in strategic weapons, then a freeze, and then reductions, may be a good political counter, but it is no more realistic as an arms control proposition than the simple freeze. Do our weapons become bargaining chips, or will the Soviets wait for us to close the gap? The debate threatens to degenerate into abstractions.

Rather than negotiating a complicated freeze or reductions package, why not concentrate on those weapons that cause real strategic concerns, the weapons that could be used in a surprise attack or a first strike, i.e., accurate ICBMs with multiple warheads, of which the Soviet SS18 is the world's heavyweight champion. The Soviets claim that our MX is a contender for that title, and that our new U.S. Pershing missile to be based in Germany is in the first-strike category because it could reach Soviet targets in only a few minutes.

Given these worries, a simple proposition suggests itself: we forgo some or all of our MX missiles and the U.S.S.R. gives up some or all of its SS18s for openers. True, such a proposal trades future U.S. draft choices for the Soviet first team. We give up the paper plans for the MXs in old silos where we really don't want them, and the Soviets give up about 308 real missile silos. But we could build 500 MXs, and we may not be at all eager to abandon it, even though it seems to be the Flying Dutchman of strategic weaponry. And the United States is putting on the table some other chips. After all, we are at the beginning of a new cycle of weapons --the B1, the Trident submarines and two missile system, various cruise missiles-- and the Soviets are resting on the laurels of the past 10 years. They stand to gain much more than we from the resumption of SALT bargaining. So an entrance price, trading the MX for the SS18, is not a bad deal. But it is not enough. There is still the problem of the European imbalance. We cannot solve our problems at the expense of our allies.

Brezhnev has graciously conceded that he will freeze his 300 SS20 missiles ranged against Europe and China, and even take some down. The U.S. proposal is for both sides to give up all intermediate-range missiles, which means we give up 108 "first-strike" Pershing missiles in Europe.

The United States ought to move now to combine the European talks with new SALT talks, and break down the artificial distinction between intermediate and intercontinental weapons. We could offer a new opening deal: the United States will give up the potential threat to Soviet ICBMs from the MX and the Pershing, and the U.S.S.R. would give up the threat from the SS20 and SS18. In short, zero MX, zero Pershings, zero SS20s, zero SS18s. About 4,000 missile warheads would disappear. The remaining weapons --cruise missiles, medium-range aircraft, bombers, older missiles etc.--could be put into the main SALT/START negotiations, which could continue without interruption in Geneva under a new name.

This is a heavy price to ask of the Soviet Union. Probably Brezhnev will not pay it; he may get it all for nothing. But it could be the beginning of bargaining. It reflects something of the real world of strategic anxieties; each side would be trying to alleviate strategic threats. If a freeze isn't acceptable, and a complicated formula for reducing warheads, megatonnage and missile throwweight, etc., takes too long, why not make the Soviets a simple proposition and start START.