Where is arms control as an issue? Pollsters of both parties report its absence from their clipboards. Even an invitation to express any lurking thoughts about questions they have not been asked does not elicit expressions of concern. Politicians report only pockets of interest in their constituencies. The boulder of nuclear disarmament has fallen to the bottom of the hill again.
Some say the peace movement is dormant, not dead. But at a Capitol Hill reception to mark the opening of a Washington office of Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND), when Dr. Helen Caldicott, the fierce antinuclear agitator, promised defiantly that women "will turn this country upside down," there were wistful smiles.
Many present remembered the ease with which President Reagan put down the nuclear-freeze movement. Three years ago it seemed like an irresistible force in American politics. But a few jabs from Reagan about the folly of freezing Soviet arms "superiority" and the gullibility of freeze adherents were sufficient to eliminate the threat to his complacency.
Some attribute this to the public's short attention span and its sense of inadequacy in dealing with technical information. Others put it to a marked disinclination to think about the unthinkable.
War and peace was hardly an issue in the campaign. A White House visit from Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and the subsequent dispatch of a negotiating team to Geneva seemed to dispel the doubts of those who had been devouring Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of Earth" a short time before.
Reagan presented himself as a zealot. He was not merely for arms control, he was seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons. His "Star Wars" scheme, astronomically expensive and technically dubious, would make missiles "obsolete," he said.
The cause of arms control has slid from the February assessment of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who called it "somewhere between minimal and dismal," to something like nonexistent. The executive director of the Arms Control Association, Spurgeon Keeny, calls this "the most dangerous moment in the history of arms control -- it is hanging by a slender thread."
Chances are that we not only will get no treaty in Geneva but that we will eliminate those few treaties in existence -- SALT II for openers, and eventually, because of "Star Wars," the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and the Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
Even before the end of the year, the lid could be off the arms race.
Yet, as Keeny notes, "there are no crusaders out on the issue."
The problem is circular. In the absence of eloquent voices, public opinion is quiet. Because of the quiet, politicians are inattentive. Democrats are immersed in the budget and the deficit. It is a time for an Adlai Stevenson, who despite his defeats, incomparably framed public issues for his party.
The new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has indicated a willingness to make sharp cuts in missiles if "Star Wars" research is halted. The president has said the research is nonnegotiable, ensuring stalemate.
During Reagan's recent trip to Europe, the boldest step yet was made to scrap continued observance of the signed but unratified SALT II treaty. Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard N. Perle, the best-informed and most militant antitreaty player in the administration, told a Senate committee that since the Soviets were cheating, we should feel free to slip out of its constraints.
In Portugal, Reagan received this news of Perle's "personal view" with perfect equanimity. Compliance, he said casually, had been "rather one-sided" adding that if it had been violated, "then there's no need for us to continue."
Next month the president is required to let Congress know his intentions in regard to observing, unofficially, the limits of SALT II, which expires at the end of the year. But the real test may come in September, when sea trials for the Trident submarine Alaska are scheduled. To launch the Alaska, without dismantling either a Poseidon submarine or taking down 14 existing missiles would put us in violation of the 1,200-missile limit imposed by SALT II.
Two conservative senators, Steve Syms (R-Idaho) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), introduced an amendment calling on the president to tear up SALT II.
If he does, of course, Europe will scream. The indignation will, in time, travel to these shores and people will start pushing the boulder up the hill again.