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Arms and morality

There is another side to the US-Soviet antagonisms expressed so ironically in the name of disarmament at the United Nations last week. It is the possibility -- and, indeed, the nuclear-impelled necessity -- of replacing these antagonisms with sufficient openness and understanding to make armed conflict unthinkable, whatever the arsenals, whatever the treaties.

This condition has become taken for granted between such former antagonists as Britain and the United States, or France and (West) Germany. It seems remote between such onetime allies as Russia and America. Yet the process could be buoyed up and carried forward by what has been added to the situation in the past year -- a reawakened public conscience, a broad-based resurgence of the moral concern about nuclear arms that had been so evident during their early years but seemed to lie quiescent since then.

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This resurgence is traced today in the first article of a Monitor series on nuclear weapons by Elizabeth Pond. Among those cited is a British government official, formerly in the ministry of defense. Looking beyond the moral dilemmas posed by present nuclear choices, he believes mankind need not be content forever to accept ''security based on keeping profound adversaries apart by the fear of monstrous disaster.'' He sees a way out in ''dissolving the problem'' - bringing America and Russia to a point of improved relations where they ''simply do not have to take seriously the possibility of armed conflict between them.''

What specific steps in line with today's moral concern might best serve this evolution of US-Soviet relations as well as present security?

At least one step seemed clear in the speeches of Presidents Reagan and Brezhnev (via Foreign Minister Gromyko) at the UN special session on disarmament. It was a renewed commitment to the control of chemical weapons, touched on by both leaders. There also appeared to be some likelihood of cooperation on Mr. Reagan's proposal for safeguards -- such as advance notice of missile tests -- against accidental war.

President Reagan made no specific rejoinder to the week's most publicized initiative - the Soviet pledge of ''no first use'' of nuclear weapons. But he could have been referring to it when he called for more than ''empty promises.''

The lingering war in Afghanistan would have been enough to cast doubt on Moscow's good intentions. But the Kremlin dramatized the hollowness of its rhetoric with a small episode during last week itself. While the Soviet press trumpeted the massive June 12 disarmament rally in New York, Soviet police cracked down to prevent the meeting of a tiny independent disarmament group in Moscow.

Nevertheless, the idea of no first use of nuclear weapons is part of the current debate. It should not be excluded simply because Moscow advocates it -- as it has often done before.

As long as a nation possesses nuclear weapons, it cannot necessarily be expected to forgo their use in an emergency on the basis of a pledge. The US displays a certain candor in refusing to make a pledge against first use while its policy remains to keep the option of first use. It argues, for example, that Warsaw Pact superiority in conventional arms requires that NATO retain the advantage of ''flexible'' response, including first use of nuclear weapons.

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Yet, long before the Brezhnev speech last week, four US defense experts -- McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith -- made a no less publicized call for changing US first-use policy. They argue that allied conventional deployments over the past 20 years have much reduced any Moscow temptation to risk attack on the assumption no adequate defense could be mounted. They recognize an effective conventional defense has to back up any no-first-use policy. They realize East-West agreement on the matter would be no absolute guarantee as long as the nuclear weapons are available. They suggest the possibility of a compromise step, no-early-first-use. But they see great advantages in the reduction of nuclear weapons expenditures when only second use has to be prepared for. And they say that, at a minimum, a joint US-Soviet renunciation of first use ''would give both sides additional reason to seek for agreements that would prevent a vastly expensive and potentially destabilizing contest for some kind of strategic advantage in outer space.''

Is the time ripe for such a move beyond the present balance of nuclear destruction that has been accompanied by long years without war between major powers? Which is more ''moral'' -- full and routine reliance on nuclear arms; renunciation of them, perhaps beginning with the proposed nuclear freeze; maintenance of the threat of retaliatory use in deterrence?

The hopeful element is that, whatever conclusions nations or individuals reach, the demand now is that they be arrived at through moral reasoning. The intricacies of strategy and security cannot be ignored. But solutions cannot but be improved when sought in the light of that moral concern which has come to the surface again, capturing the public heart, requiring that leaders not ignore it.

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