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To link or not link?

To what must be the relief of everyone, President Reagan has come around to detaching strategic arms talks with the Soviet Union from political problems in East-West relations. He not only has put an arms reduction proposal on the table but has set a firm date--June 29--for the start of the negotiations. He thus arrives in Europe looking the statesmanlike peacemaker rather than feisty gladiator.

There is little doubt the West Europeans will widely approve what now appears to be a less confrontational United States policy toward the Russians. They are right. The competition in nuclear arms is far too dangerous to the security of the West and the whole world to be linked to developments in , for instance, Poland or Afghanistan. Stabilizing that competition cannot await the solution of political problems. In fact the political problems--and the risks of conflict they generate--make it all the more urgent to bring the arms race under control.

It is therefore encouraging to have also Mr. Reagan's pledge that the US will abide by previous arms limitation agreements with Moscow as long as the Russians show equal restraint. The President did not mention SALT by name in his Memorial Day speech but his pledge would encompass the unratified SALT II treaty. Whether such voluntary compliance is sufficient is open to question, of course. New weapons are going to be deployed by both sides which are more difficult to verify, and this will put strains on the SALT II agreements. Hence there is considerable merit in the idea of a joint resolution by Congress giving more formal adherence to SALT II--but short of ratification.

In any case, it is now up to the US and the USSR to prove how serious they are. Mr. Brezhnev's proposal for a nuclear freeze is unacceptable to the American side. Mr. Reagan's bold proposal for deep reductions in mutual arsenals is equally certain to give the Russians problems--a concern no doubt heightened by the Pentagon's recently aired blueprint for fighting a protracted nuclear war. Yet the two sides must make a start, and START is therefore to be heartily welcomed.


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