THE NUCLEAR FREEZE resolution comes to the floor of the House as something of a victim of its own success. It was launched on the wave of anxiety that Ronald Reagan helped propel by his threatening statements on war and by his apparent intent to ignore arms control and to "rearm" at full speed. A freeze seemed to many of its sponsors just the broad-brush gesture needed to engage public emotion and restrain a president gone wild. Mr. Reagan, however, responded by toning down his statements and moving into negotiations with Moscow. As a result, what began its political life as a strategic roadblock arrives on the floor largely as a tactical alternative. The edge of urgency is gone.
In regard to the freeze, the basic problem is one of analysis, and it has resisted a consensus solution over the years. The problem is, is one or the other side ahead in the nuclear competition? Ronald Reagan argues that the United States has been falling behind and that therefore a freeze would lock in a dangerous measure of American inferiority. His critics believe that a rough parity exists and could be preserved to common advantage by a freeze. Where you stand on this broad issue seems to depend more on your political disposition than on the numbers. It is not likely to profit much from further debate.
The worthier issue in our view is crisis stability. The principal danger of nuclear war arises less from the accumulation of weapons, as troubling as that is, than from the fearsome chance that in a crisis one side might feel compelled to fire first lest its missiles be taken out in their silos. As it happens--and many advocates of a freeze agree--the Soviets now lead in the crucial category of first-strike or counter- force weapons, land-based missiles whose high accuracy and power threaten the other side's similar forces. A freeze, which would hobble plans to make these missiles less vulnerable, would thus increase instability and make war more possible.
Moreover, with due respect for the difficulty of negotiating anything with Moscow, it is practically inconceivable that adequate verification could be negotiated for the House resolution. It calls for freezing not just the deployment but also the testing and even the production of warheads, missiles and other delivery systems. That's too ambitious.
If Mr. Reagan is to persuade the House to "cool the freeze," however, he must go beyond particular pros and cons and address the common belief that a freeze is the only alternative to an accelerated arms race whose likely next phase of counter-force weapons is especially ominous. He must show that he is prepared to bargain sensibly on arms control and not simply to use the talks as a screen behind which to pursue an ephemeral and destabilizing advantage. It is precisely his failure to make this showing that keeps alive the freeze and breeds continuing mistrust of his ability to secure the nuclear peace.