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Let's not be lemmings

Few people are likely to take seriously George Kennan's call for an immediate 50 percent reduction of the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers. Yet the former American diplomat's warning that the United States and the Soviet Union are on a collision course --"victims of some sort of hypnosis, men in a dream, like lemmings headed for the sea" --deserves thoughtful consideration.

We are happy to hear that some voices within the Reagan administration think so, too. Eugene Rostow, who is the President's choice to become head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, says the Kennan proposal will be seriously looked at. "The whole miserable business is mad," he comments. "We must find a way out." Given Mr. Rostow's credentials as a tough-minded critic of the Russians and a "hawk" on defense, his words are particularly reassuring.

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Indeed they seem to foreshadow that President Reagan, like his predecessors, will have to address the issue of nuclear arms control. Not only to keep peace within NATO --America's allies are unwilling to go along with the stationing of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe unless arms talks are held with Moscow. But because, without such negotiations and a new arms agreement, the superpowers may be headed not only for nuclear confrontation but for financial disaster. How long can Moscow and Washington sustain an unrestrained arms race?

Mr. Reagan already has invited considerable skepticism that he can cut taxes, boost military outlays, and still lower inflation, balance the budget, and revive the US economy. The figures boggle the mind. As the administration sees it, defense spending will grow to some $250 billion in 1984 and about $300 billion in 1986. A vigorously ticking economy is supposed to make possible these huge expenditures. But what if the economy does not respond fast enough and the defense buildup merely adds to the inflationary pressures, as many economists in fact think it will? How "secure" can the US feel with its economy running out of control?

No one can fault the President for seeking to put America's defenses in order in the face of new Soviet military realities. But more and more analysts question that money alone will solve the problem. In fact it may compound it by creating a false reliance on sheer numbers of weapons and the acquisition of ever more sophisticated arms that have limited military value. With Mr. Reagan's green light to inspire them, the military services have been turning in long wish lists of proposed new weaponry. But still lacking is a balanced, comprehensive administration analysis of what US security goals are and of what arms and personnel are needed to accomplish them efficiently and at least cost.

Outside analyses could prove helpful. One new book, for instance -- "National Defense" by James Fallows -- argues that security can be improved without spending many more billions: through better procurement practices; choosing weapons which, though less advanced technologically, are more utilitarian in actual combat; improving readiness of existing arms; raising manpower morale; dealing forcefully with military bureaucrats and vested interests in the defense industry; and rethinking such strategically dubious schemes as the MX missile. Still another recent study, by military expert William Kaufmann of MIT, proposes how Mr. Reagan could cut his five-year military program by $55 billion without harming national security.

These are thoughtfully researched efforts which ought to receive close scrutiny in Washington. We have a hunch that as President Reagan begins more fully to explore the economic and political costs involved in the whole defense field he will adjust his policies accordingly. He will find that an arms treaty with the Russians and a less ambitious but no less effective military program for the US are the best route to improving the nation's economy -- and its security.

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