Nuclear weapons are morally repugnant - but the lesser of evils at this point , so long as they are used only in non-use, to deter rather than to fight.
This was the opinion of a majority of readers who responded to the Monitor's rather demanding 53-part questionnaire on nuclear weapons published last summer.
The unexpectedly large response (1,328 answers) and the care and thought put into the replies indicate that many Monitor readers are deeply concerned about nuclear dangers. And they are clearly committed to the search for ways to save mankind from their threat.
Such concern cannot be taken for granted. One of the most conspicuous lacks in nuclear-weapons and arms-control policy over the past four decades has been an informed public that cares about the subject and lets its congressmen and presidents know that it cares. As a consequence, policy on nuclear arms - on which our very survival depends - has been generally abandoned to the experts without clear guidance from voters. And it has often become a political football.
The Monitor response suggests, however, that what political scientists like to call an ''attentive public'' may at last be developing - one that is willing to go beyond easy formula answers, one that is hungry for intelligent leadership in this area.
A second striking aspect of the Monitor reader responses is their individuality. The questionnaire encouraged write-in answers and all except 44 of the 1,328 respondents did formulate their own sometimes lengthy replies to questions. The raw percentage data of support for the preferred options therefore give only the palest indication of the readers' depth of feeling on the various issues. For this reason the data will be fleshed out here by quotes indicating the spectrum of readers' opinions.
In broad-brush terms, here is what questionnaire respondents think:
The majority, as mentioned above, consider nuclear weapons morally repugnant but the lesser of evils so long as they are used to deter rather than to fight. One-fourth of respondents make a distinction between the moral acceptability of threatening nuclear retaliation in order to prevent that first outbreak of nuclear war (51 percent in favor) and the moral acceptability of actually carrying out retaliation, should worse come to worst (only 25 percent in favor, 67 percent against). The same split appears over the moral acceptability of NATO's threat to respond to any successful conventional attack on Western Europe with nuclear weapons (only 28 percent in favor, 67 percent against).
The whole concept of deterrence divides readers between those who find it immoral because it makes hostages of civilian populations (40 percent) and those who find it a lesser evil (49 percent). Almost half grudgingly accept deterrence as the one thing we have going for us (46 percent), but 32 percent fault it for not preventing non-nuclear wars outside Europe, while 9 percent fault it for producing Western strategic paralysis.
Almost three-quarters consider the nuclear arms race itself immoral, and almost nine-tenths consider it dangerous. Some 36 percent would clear their conscience by unilateral American renunciation of nuclear weapons (as against 58 percent opposed). The support for unilateral destruction of American weapons falls, however (to 15 percent), if there are alternative choices of a unilateral freeze (21 percent) or mutual agreed nuclear limitations of the SALT type (55 percent).
On American policy toward the Kremlin only 18 percent want toughness on all counts, while 59 percent would offer both carrots and sticks. Some 21 percent approved the early Reagan administration talk about fighting nuclear wars, while 63 percent were alarmed by it.
A negligible 2 percent think Reagan has deserted his campaign promises in entering arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union; 40 percent welcome his move as an adjustment to the real world; 24 percent think of it as nothing more than a PR gesture - and 34 percent think that even though it started as a PR gesture it will develop its own momentum, if the grass-roots antinuclear movement remains strong. Some 25 percent further find Reagan totally untrustworthy on arms control, while 38 percent believe he is the one president who could make arms control work politically in the US.
The majority (62 percent) regard the US and the Soviet Union as rough nuclear equals at the present time, with almost equal minorities viewing the US as behind (15 percent) or ahead (13 percent). Only 10 percent think the US should seek superiority, while 60 percent advocate a goal of maintaining parity. In line with this, only 7 percent think the US should engage in a massive military buildup before seriously negotiating arms control, while 46 percent think the US should use some of its new drawing-board weapons as bargaining chips instead to get concessions from the Russians.
Correspondingly, only 10 percent feel that arms-control agreements weaken the US by restricting American weapons, while 72 percent believe they enhance American security by restricting Soviet weapons. A comparable 73 percent think arms control is the one thing we have going for us, though 23 percent are wary of it as legitimizing existing weapons while not actually reversing the arms race. Some 47 percent hope that arms control might again become the centerpiece of an East-West detente, while 32 percent think that at this point it would be better to divorce arms control from detente as such.
A clear majority (55 percent) would still like to see SALT II ratified, though a minority of 17 percent would refuse ratification. On the START talks, 22 percent would like to see the US insist on reducing the Soviet advantage in throw weight (with a further 2 percent wanting Washington to do so as a means to torpedo the talks altogether). A plurality of 47 percent, however, would subordinate this issue to other factors of greater military importance to the US.
One-quarter blame both superpowers equally for the arms race, 29 percent blame Moscow more, 5 percent blame Washington more, and a majority of 56 percent - there are some double and triple answers here - blame the arms race's own autonomous momentum.
The US peace movement is positively seen as restoring America's moral sanity (27 percent) and creating the hitherto missing political constituency for arms control (57 percent). Negatively, however, it is viewed as generating pressures for unilateral disarmament (20 percent) or, in another direction, allying with hard-liners to defeat arms control in the pragmatic middle (7 percent).
The slogan of ''better Red than dead'' is saluted by only 4 percent. It is viewed as a fake choice, either because deterrence shields us from such stark alternatives (51 percent) or because Moscow isn't all that threatening anyway ( 25 percent). Deterrence is, finally, overwhelmingly accepted as the best short-term policy by most (61 percent) but rejected as inadequate long-term (73 percent).
As the basis of citizens' nuclear decisions, a plurality of 41 percent reject either fear or just leaving things to the experts, though 35 percent take fear as the best current prod, and 19 percent are willing to let the specialists take care of everything. A hefty 88 percent think that individual citizens actually can influence government nuclear policy.