A reflection in this space last week to the effect that the administration is not so much more war-minded than its predecessors as it is more worried that nuclear deterrence might fail did not, somehow, convince everyone, starting at the breakfast table. So it seems unavoidable to back up and take another run.
A number of close readers were unhappy, first of all, that a burden should be put on the administration's critics to be attentive to the details of the formal Reagan strategy and to be fair in evaluating it. In their view the burden should properly rest on President Reagan: to show he is not pushing the world toward the nuclear precipice.
Many people have been unnerved by Reagan's policies, or by his policies in concert with his pronouncements, and they regard any sober explication of them as an irrelevancy and a dodge. Fearing, or, in many cases, being utterly convinced that he is taking the nation down a terrible path, they do not want to be held up by any low-grade hurdles such as a requirement for fairness or sobriety in political debate. The tone they find essential is hot urgency, as befits the need to stop someone from committing a mad act.
By moderating its tone, then, the administration is not going to blunt the popular thrust against its nuclear policies. As long as it continues its rearmament effort on the present scale, as long as it talks arms control but does not deliver, as long as it projects a sense of confrontation, untinged with elements of cooperation, with the Soviet Union--and let's face it, for many people, as long as Reagan is Reagan --resistance is likely to thrive. Perhaps the administration can lick the resistance in the political arena. But it will only be by a struggle.
Last weekend's meeting of nuclear freeze leaders, by the way, indicates the way some of the winds are blowing. In the last year, Reagan has moved a measurable distance: changed secretaries of state, softened his rhetoric, opened talks on strategic missiles and, clearly, begun contemplating a compromise in the Euromissile talks. How did the freeze folks react? They virtually renounced the idea of mutual negotiated arms cuts in favor of unilateral, congressionally imposed cuts, and they launched a campaign to keep the United States from deploying the new missiles meant to protect Europeans, who asked for them.
The very thought of unilateral disarmament appalls the administration. But in the last week I have gotten a keener sense of what many people see--with some but not full reason--as the Reagan policy of unilateral armament. People ask in effect, why is it that the administration objects to only one sort of unilateralism, down but not up?
Reaganites see danger in mortgaging security to unwarranted popular apprehensions about nuclear war, and a lot of citizens see danger in mortgaging security to unwarranted official alarms about Soviet power.
I would like to see the two sides each acknowledging that the other has a point. In fact, each party is sure and scared enough of the specter of its choice to make it extremely difficult to reach a truce, let alone agreement, on where the principal threat to the nation's security lies.
Whence comes the agitation over nuclear war. Reagan's view--that the Soviets are menacing by ideology, that they have obtained strategic parity or better, and that they may use their putative advantage to blackmail if not to attack the West --leads directly to his emphasis on conveying to the Soviets, in order to deter the threat he perceives, that the United States is ready and able to fight a nuclear war if it must. Nixon, Ford and Carter, attempting to cope with roughly similar strategic circumstances, all attempted to project that readiness, but none with Reagan's rawness and urgency.
As I have been told this week, however, if there is a logic to the Reagan position, it merely means he has started from the wrong place: from too great a fear of the Kremlin, from an inadequate appreciation of the United States' own contributions to world tension, from a false and trivial view of the perils of nuclear war. People who feel this way do not want to be given missile counts and trend lines and asked to contemplate the balance of power, or to be invited to appreciate the president's responsibilities--or to be dismissed as Soviet dupes. They want their central emotional preoccupation--war--to be fully registered.
Perhaps we need to grant a new right: a right to the fear of one's choice. At this point that may be the largest contribution that all of us, starting with Reagan, can make to our common debate.