When both the leading evangelical Protestant preacher in the United States, the Rev. Billy Graham, and the bishops of the Roman Catholic communion in the US are publicly committed on the same side of a political movement -- that movement is to be taken seriously.
There is a powerful movement in the US today against the idea of using nuclear weapons in warfare. It has an emotional and irrational side to it. Street demonstrators sometimes exhibit more emotional fear than rational consideration of all of the implications. Primarily, the demonstrators express a yearning for reassurance that they and their children will not become the victims either of nuclear war or of a disaster at a nuclear power plant.
There is also a rational and responsible side to the movement. Four prominent , respected, and influential former government officials have issued a carefully considered proposal for renunciation by the US of ''first use'' of nuclear weapons. Theirs is an attempt to reduce the likelihood of the use of such weapons in warfare without handing a monopoly in nuclear weapons to the Soviets. To give such a monopoly to the Soviets would not be rational or responsible.
The four are McGeorge Bundy, head of the National Security Council staff at the White House during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations; Robert McNamara, secretary of defense at the same time; George Kennan, a leading American expert on Soviet affairs and former US ambassador in Moscow; and Gerard Smith, who served in the State Department during the Eisenhower administration and was a nuclear arms negotiator for Presidents Nixon and Ford.
The current antinuclear movement started in Europe during the Carter administration owing to talk about deploying a new generation of US nuclear weapons in Europe. It slowed down when Mr. Carter deferred plans for the deployment. It got going again and quickly spread to the US in the wave of early Reagan administration talk about nuclear weaponry.
The talk included the idea of ''winning'' a nuclear war, and reviving civil defense. Reagan, Haig, and Weinberger rhetoric triggered a general impression that the Reagan administration was more interested in the possible use of such weapons than in the avoidance of their use.
All of that had a devastating effect on the allies in Western Europe. It scared not only people in the streets but also high officials in government. A State Department official in Washington commented that ''they are more scared of us now than they are of the Russians.''
It forced the Reagan administration into thinking seriously about arms control talks with the Soviets. It was either that or further strains on the alliance and more and wilder street demonstrations at home. A lot of Americans as well as a lot of Europeans had been worried.
Now we come to the stage of real public debate over national strategy and the proper place for nuclear weapons in that strategy. It is high time, and a good thing. There has been no real debate about such matters in a long while. We know from the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. David C. Jones, that there does not exist in Washington a satisfactory institution for arriving at a rational national strategy. The present defense program under debate in Congress was arrived at not by thinking through a coherent national strategy but by collecting and adding together the dream lists of branches of the armed forces at the Pentagon.
Do we need to spend as much money on new weapons as is now proposed? Do we need the kind of armed forces which presume a Soviet invasion of West Germany? Should we plan to meet such an invasion with nuclear weapons, thus assuring a nuclear response? Or could we plan to meet such an invasion by conventional weapons only? If so, what is the cost of such weapons compared to new nuclear ones? And, is it realistic to think that the Soviets would invade Western Europe whether Western strategy assumes using nuclear weapons or intends to rely on conventional weapons?
We cannot yet see the answers. The debate is only beginning. Let it rage, and let us hope that at the end the answers will become more visible than they yet are. I would at this stage toss into the pot one thought. If the Soviets invaded Western Europe successfully, they would end up with all of Germany under their control. That would lead to a reunited Germany inside the Soviet system. Do the Soviets really want to risk such a result?
Perhaps our thinking about such matters might begin with rethinking probable Soviet motives and objectives. Without doubt they want security. But to them security is more likely to mean keeping Germany divided than risk uniting it by conquest.
If they are not likely to invade Western Europe, do we need tanks suitable only for warfare in Europe? The questions keep coming up faster than the answers.