The consensus seemed to develop almost immediately: the Soviet assault on that South Korean airliner would weaken congressional resistance to the president's defense program. Specifically, the downing of an unarmed commercial plane would make it easier for Reagan to win support for the deployment of MX missiles and B1 bombers, while cutting the ground from under advocates of a nuclear freeze.

The assumption, even if it turns out to have been politically valid, will remain a logical absurdity. If you say it fast enough, and with a proper air of seriousness --as the president did in his televised speech a few days after the incident--you can almost sell the link between what the Russians did to that Korean plane and what we ought to do about our nuclear defenses. The implied syllogism of the president's remarks is that the "massacre" exposes the Soviets as coldblooded killers and shameless liars--outlaws in the community of nations; only the United States is powerful enough to deter them from their outlawry; therefore, the assault proves the need for the MX missile program and anything else the Pentagon says is necessary to maintain our power.

See? It almost works, if you don't dwell on it. You cannot, for instance, actually state that if the United States had gone ahead with the MX program several years ago, or if the B1 and Stealth bombers were realities, or if the Pentagon budget were as large as the president wants, the Soviets would't have dared shoot down a plane they thought was spying on them. In fact, the more you think about it, the less reasonable it is to suppose that U.S. military preparedness was any factor in what the Soviets did to KAL 007, or that their future actions under similar circumstances will depend on the success or failure of the freeze movement.

The most obvious effect of the attempt to link Flight 007 to the American debate over nuclear arms control is to obscure the point that was finally becoming clear: opponents of the MX don't oppose it because they doubt the need for the United States to be strong but because they doubt that the MX adds to our strength. Proponents of a bilateral nuclear freeze don't advocate their view because they have been lulled into believing the Soviet leadership consists of nice, peace-loving pussycats. They support a freeze because they believe that continuing the arms race renders us more insecure.

President Reagan says he believes it too. In the same speech in which he told us that the downing of the Korean airliner proved the need for MX, he also acknowledged the way to "bring peace closer (is) through mutual, verifiable reduction in the weapons of war." The real argument is whether the best way to achieve nuclear arms reduction is 1) to bargain from a position of strength provided by a massive nuclear arms buildup or 2) to stop the arms race first, and then negotiate for reductions.

There are a lot of factors that might logically lead you to choose one position or the other. But the downing of the Korean airliner isn't one of them.