Thinking About The Unthinkable

Rising fears about the dangers of nuclear war

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P.S.R. may be the most effective group in the antinuclear movement. "Our credibility is as a scientific, single-issue organization," says Director Thomas Halsted. "Our issue is nuclear war and its medical consequences. That's it." In an ongoing series of symposiums across the country, members lecture about the horrific consequences of a 20-megaton bomb explosion, from the moment of impact to the long-term effects of radiation sickness. "As soon as you dwell on the effects of a nuclear bomb," says Halsted, "the coffee cups stop rattling."

P.S.R. backs a bilateral nuclear freeze, but Caldicott sees that proposal as only a first step. "No one has the absolute answer," she admits, "but the issue of nuclear war will reach a critical mass, and from that will emerge a solution. We must continue stirring the pot, for the issue is survival."

Advocates of a bilateral nuclear-weapons freeze contend that the plan makes sense, since both the U.S. and the Soviet Union already have large enough arsenals to annihilate each other's populations many times over. Supporters also reject the charge made by hawkish critics that the movement is ultimately a pacifist one that plays into the hands of the Soviets. They point out that the freeze proposal calls for verification. Critics, however, respond by claiming that a freeze on "testing, production and further deployment" of nuclear weapons cannot be verified without on-site inspection, which Moscow has always resisted. Beyond that, a President pushed into negotiations with Moscow by the force of a populist movement, even in the name of a morally just cause, would be at an enormous disadvantage in trying to deal with leaders of a totalitarian society who knew in advance the limits of his maneuverability.

It is too early to assess the domestic political impact of the antinuclear sentiment. Although impressive in size, the movement is still rather amorphous and politically unorganized. Democrats are pinning much of the blame on Reagan for the growing fears of nuclear war, and White House aides admit that indiscreet statements by the President and some of his key aides may have contributed to the anxiety. But Administration officials offer no apologies for their talk of a defense buildup, and do not plan to retreat. Says one White House adviser: "One of the prices you pay for raising the specter of Soviet nuclear superiority is that you make people face up to the nature of the dangers we are facing."

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the antinuclear sentiment is growing as a political issue. In Washington, at least, it is not yet seen as a truly pivotal issue, like the state of the economy, for this fall's election. "It is more like the environmental movement of the 1970s than the antiwar movement of the 1960s," says Robert Neuman, director of communications for the Democratic National Committee. "It is confrontational, and will probably not become a Democratic or Republican issue." Says Republican Political Consultant David Keene: "It's like motherhood and apple pie. Who's going to be in favor of nuclear war?"

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