It is likely the question was first asked as soon as it could be – that the hope of abolition followed shortly after the task of creation. J. Robert Oppenheimer, transfixed in the glare of the first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert, recalled a verse of the Bhaghavad Gita: ”Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” It is not a role to which man would grow accustomed. If current signs and portents are fulfilled, and American and Soviet negotiators in Geneva eventually agree on a formula to remove the intermediate-range Pershing 2 and cruise missiles, along with their Soviet counterparts, the SS-20’s, from European soil – the so-called zero option – Ronald Reagan will have made good on his vow to hold out for an agreement that would actually reduce the number of nuclear weapons.
Since the American armies were demobilized after World War II, nuclear weapons have served as a relatively inexpensive means of filling the gap between the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the vast armies of the Warsaw Pact. From the earliest ”ban-the-bomb” movements, through the halcyon days of arms control during the 1970’s, to Mr. Reagan’s vision of a nuclear-free world sheltered beneath a leakproof ”space shield,” the nuclear guarantee – under which the United States would respond to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe by launching its missiles – has remained the crucial link between America and its allies.
The 1979 decision to install the American missiles in Europe reaffirmed that link. When Mr. Reagan unveiled his ”zero option” proposal to remove them, in 1981, it was widely derided as a charade offering no serious chance of an arms-control agreement. In March 1983, partly in response to massive demonstrations protesting the installation of those very missiles, this least-dovish of Presidents declared his intention to make nuclear weapons ”impotent and obsolete,” and put forward an ambitious new research program to achieve it: his Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as Star Wars.
Previous nuclear abolitionists had looked to international law or brotherly love to reduce the world supply of nuclear weapons – of which the Americans and Russians together possess about 50,000. Mr. Reagan proposed a more typically American object of faith: high technology.
That Mr. Reagan’s defense program has irrevocably transformed the arms-control game was dramatically demonstrated at Reykjavik, Iceland, last October, when the President and Mikhail Gorbachev discussed a comprehensive agreement that would sharply cut the number of offensive strategic missiles in exchange for limits on research on Mr. Reagan’s ”space shield.” To the subsequent chagrin of America’s European allies, who fear the weakening of the American nuclear guarantee, the two leaders agreed in principle to eliminate all ballistic missiles, and even speculated about abolishing nuclear weapons altogether.
The Reykjavik meeting collapsed when Mr. Reagan refused to countenance limits on S.D.I. research. Yet only his enthusiasm for defense had made such a revolutionary agreement conceivable in the first place. Even if a future summit meeting between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev produces an accord to remove the missiles from Europe, however, six long years will have passed without any significant arms-control agreement – while previous accords (most notably the 1972 ABM treaty banning the deployment of antiballistic missiles) have been placed in jeopardy.