Thinking About The Unthinkable

Rising fears about the dangers of nuclear war

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Although its hard-cover publication by Alfred A. Knopf will not occur until April, one of the most talked-about books of the year is Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the World. First published in The New Yorker last month, it is an impassioned argument that nuclear weapons have made war obsolete and world government imperative. Astonishingly, some 40 new books on nuclear issues are scheduled to be published before the end of this year; Pocket Books is rushing into bookstores with 100,000 copies of Nuclear War: What's in It for You ?, a paperback primer on the subject, written by Roger Molander, founder of Ground Zero, a nuclear-education group.

The main reason for the growth of the movement is increasing concern that political leaders of both superpowers—especially since the shelving of the SALT II treaty in 1980 and the failure to resume talks since then—have moved, with mutual belligerence, toward a direct confrontation that could trigger a nuclear war. Those worries were, in a sense, symbolized by a rhetorical exchange between Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev last week that probably did more to augment superpower tensions than to ease them. Speaking to the 17th Congress of Soviet Trade Unions, the medal-bedecked Soviet leader announced that Moscow was immediately suspending its deployment of new SS-20 nuclear missiles west of the Urals and targeted at Western Europe. The freeze would last until an arms agreement was reached with the U.S., or until the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began deploying 572 new Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe, which is now scheduled to take place in late 1983. Brezhnev also declared that the Soviet Union would later this year unilaterally dismantle "a certain number" of its medium-range missiles already in place.

Washington swiftly rejected Brezhnev's proposals. "A freeze simply isn't good enough because it doesn't go far enough," said President Reagan in a speech to the Oklahoma state legislature. Instead, Reagan reminded Brezhnev of his "zero option" proposal made last November, in which the U.S. would forgo placing its new Pershing II and cruise missiles on European soil if Moscow would scrap its arsenal of SS-20 missiles.

Concerned that Moscow might nonetheless score a propaganda coup with its proposals, the White House released a detailed analysis intended to show that the Brezhnev plan would only harden an already overwhelming Soviet edge in nuclear weaponry in Europe. The Soviet Union, for example, now has 300 SS-20 missiles in place and capable of being targeted on Western Europe—up from 100 in 1979—while NATO currently has no land-based missiles that can hit the Soviet Union. "What [Brezhnev] is talking about," charged White House Counsellor Edwin Meese, "is a situation where, two-thirds of the way through a football game, one side is ahead 50 to 0, and they want to freeze the score for the rest of the game." Both Reagan and Meese were somewhat overstating the case, since NATO does have aircraft-and submarine-based missiles that partly offset the Soviet advantages.

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